By Nick Burns
During my freshman year at Stanford, well-known Ivy League malcontent William Deresiewicz came to speak as part of a book tour for “Excellent Sheep,” then the latest elaboration of his critique of elite higher education in America.
To simplify, his argument is that the college admissions process rewards those who eagerly fulfill the many requirements (grades, extracurriculars, SAT scores) rather than true academic prowess or passion. Life at college is just a perpetuation of this merciless, mechanical drive to the top, and students miss the opportunity to learn how to live fulfilling lives where they set goals and pursue interests for their own sake, rather than for the sake of outcompeting their peers.
When I was a junior at a competitive high school about to enter the college admissions process, this idea voiced the disaffection I felt towards the pressure to, in Deresiewicz’s words, jump the hoops. I felt consumed by doubt even after my acceptance, a feeling that began to alleviate only after I visited campus and felt at home.
On YouTube you can watch me, freshly arrived on campus, give a meandering, longwinded diatribe disguised as a question during the Q&A section of Deresiewicz’s 2014 talk. The idea I was trying to elaborate was that the Stanford community, as I perceived it, did not fit his cutthroat description of top achievers jockeying for accolades.
This is something I still believe. Perhaps I’m making a personal observation here, but Deresiewicz’s picture much better reflects the Stanford admissions process than Stanford itself.
Nonetheless, and perhaps predictably, Deresiewicz did not take to this idea. In response to a later comment from a fellow member of the class of 2018, Deresiewicz replied, “I observe that the two people who have said ‘I’m not an excellent sheep’ are freshmen, and the one person who said ‘I am an excellent sheep’ is a senior.” He suggested that possessing a rosy picture of Stanford was directly in our interest and that further reflection would likely disillusion us.
By the same token, we might note that disliking the Ivy League was directly in Deresiewicz’s interest — it won him a lucrative book deal, and it’s also notable that his criticism of the Ivy League happened to directly follow his tenure denial at Yale.
In any case, though, I felt stung by this answer. Was I merely finding reasons to justify my own decision to attend another merciless grindhouse full of dull, Machiavellian try-hards? I’ve been here three years and I now feel confident enough to say that no, I was, in fact, right.
Stanford is not what that man makes it out to be, though that strain is doubtlessly present here. Stanford’s noncompetitive spirit is something that makes our university relatively unique among the top tier of American universities. It is something we should be proud of and should try our best to preserve, if for no other reason than the fact that it makes student life here not just bearable but often a joy to experience.
A number of top universities have struggled recently with student welfare. Columbia has fared especially badly, wracked by a wave of suicides and apparent drug overdoses. A Columbia student I knew via mutual friends went so far as to arrange her own disappearance last spring. After a frantic search mounted by authorities, friends and family members fearing the worst, she was found having started a new life in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. In an editorial she wrote in the “New York Post,” she attributed the crisis that led her to such desperate measures to a pressure to achieve that she had consistently received and internalized from an early stage in life. The piece ends on a moving note, “I finally broke down because I was living a life I thought I should be living instead of living the life I want.”
Deresiewicz’s case in point, quite possibly. But I would note that Stanford has managed to avoid this kind of story. I do not wish to diminish the importance of the widely admitted flaws in Stanford’s safety net for struggling students (CAPS, etc.) but it is hard to argue that we are seeing a mental health crisis of the same severity as Columbia. Maybe we can chalk this up to the weather or the healing power of nature, which we have significant access to here at Stanford through the Dish and the many lawns and trees on campus, while Columbia students are left with the litter-lined paths of grey Central Park.
However, I want to argue that the academic culture at Stanford is healthier than at many of our peer institutions. We have been spared the mental health crisis that is ongoing not just at Columbia but also closer to home at Gunn High School and elsewhere because of a tradition of noncompetitiveness that is ingrained into the history and culture of our university.
Something notable and fairly unique about Stanford is that it does not keep a Dean’s List or award Latin honors, more commonly known as cum laude degrees. It is true that there still exist channels to elevate some students above others — from Phi Beta Kappa honors bestowed upon graduation to less formal honors like winning a tourguide-ship — but few students seem to pay attention to Phi Beta Kappa during their time here, and the tour guide application process, I am told, does its best to dispel the notion that those who are selected are somehow better that those who aren’t.
Stanford’s Founding Grant exhorts its students to aspire to “personal success, and direct usefulness in life.” In a 1902 speech, Jane Stanford insisted, “a spirit of equality [must] be maintained within the University.” She warned against the “baneful influence of a class, bound to infest the Institution as the country grows older, who wish to acquire a University degree … for the mere ornamentation of idle and purposeless lives.” This seems in a way to anticipate and hedge against Deresiewicz’s criticism of the Ivy League.
History seems to have borne this out quite well.
Compare us to the East Coast. A friend who earned his undergraduate degree from UVA spoke to me of a rigid intra-university hierarchy of achievement. Heads of certain clubs eventually were awarded, as seniors, the dubious honor of living in one of the original student rooms built according to Jefferson’s orders. The rooms have no bathrooms and are heated by wood-burning furnaces, but students who live there flaunt the impracticality of their living accommodations as a badge of superiority over fellow students.
This, of course, could never happen here. The institutional philosophy and resulting campus culture of Stanford is based on the idea that if students are kept on equal footing and encouraged to aspire to personal success, the threat of competition and insincerity among the student body is diminished. There is no hierarchy built into university culture to exalt some students above others.
A result of this facet of Stanford’s culture is that students are less likely to measure themselves by the yardstick of their peers. Which means that when — as happens now and then — we feel burdened by the pressure of living up to the expectations that we have set for ourselves, we can go and meet our friends, relax, strain our ears to hear the Band playing “All Right Now” somewhere out in the night. In a word, we can experience joy. If you added up all the joy that every Columbia student feels in a year, it would not come close to the amount of joy inspired by a single Band Run. And there is no better antidote to stress than joy.
Returning to Deresiewicz, I can’t deny that despite his own ulterior motives, his work has brought much-needed attention to the crueler aspects of the culture of American higher education. I can’t speak substantively to whether his characterization of life at top American colleges is broadly accurate, but I can say definitively that it’s not an accurate description of Stanford. The last three years have been a chance for me personally to throw off much of the pressure to achieve of high school and dedicate myself wholly to exploring a brand new world of ideas. I’ve watched others do the same. At every step, I’ve been encouraged by professors and friends to pursue what I love, not what looks good.
In light of the mental health epidemic that is sweeping U.S. universities and local high schools, it’s a perfect time to recognize the principle of equality and personal success that Stanford was founded on, which allows for joy and not competition, and cling to it. We should also all spend an afternoon on Meyer Green as soon as the weather warms up.
Contact Nick Burns at njburns ‘at’ stanford.edu.