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Which is greater?

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At the beginning of my freshman year, I quickly recognized that my leadership roles and academic achievements at my small high school were meaningless in comparison to the high-level work that Stanford students and faculty undertake on a daily basis. Rather than worry about my own relative qualifications, I embraced my own lack of experience, set aside the impetus to prove myself and resolved to absorb as much as possible from the brilliant people around me. I openly declared that my freshman year mission was to become a sponge, who would make her way around campus with the goal of soaking up insight and inspiration wherever she could.  

As one component of this mission, I sought to spend my weekday evenings attending as many lectures and discussions as possible. I read my emails scrupulously and loaded my calendar with upcoming special events. Over the course of freshman year, I ended up attending roughly 40 different lectures, panels, conferences and discussions. Many were Stanford in Government events, with people such as Hillary Clinton’s political director Amanda Renteria ’96 and Reagan speechwriter Peter Robinson. Thanks to lucky lottery outcomes, I was able to see both Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Justice Sonia Sotomayor. One of my favorite events was an Ethics in Society lecture that presented New York City’s Central Park as an embodiment of democratic ideals.

As much as I appreciated my exposure to so many incredible perspectives, I got a bit restless by the end of the year. I had brief glimpses of so many areas of interest, cursory overviews of legendary careers, countless new questions to pursue and a wellspring of inspiration. By spending so much time exploring ideas, was I missing opportunities to make concrete change? My sponge endeavor was an undeniable success; I can directly trace many new aspirations and enduring intellectual takeaways to speakers that I heard on campus throughout freshman year. But, sponges are not designed to simply amass as much water as possible — they exist to clean up messes, and there were plenty of messes calling my name.

Three quarters and dozens of guest speakers later, I felt more empowered to contribute to the campus community and the world beyond Stanford. As I continued to absorb new perspectives, I could also take on greater responsibilities within the communities where I had come to feel at home. I could seek more intense opportunities for public service involvement and feel that my contributions had value. I even started to feel that my Daily columns weren’t just the musings of a confused freshman but a powerful way to leverage my voice.

Naturally, by taking on more commitments as a sophomore, I have much less time to attend every exciting event that shows up in my inbox. As trivial as it may seem, skipping out on a speaker always makes me question whether I am taking the right approach to my Stanford career — in particular, if I am harnessing my Stanford experience to make positive change as effectively as possible in the long run. When there are so many opportunities to learn from others with greater experience, is it merely impatient self-indulgence to take action on the issues around me? Perhaps I should focus on encountering new people and ideas that empower me to make greater long-term impact. However, the idea that a college education is solely an investment in future social good can justify present indifference. Even students who are committed to public service can succumb to a form of ethical procrastination, guiltlessly ignoring community needs because we are preparing ourselves to meet these needs more effectively in the future.

These choices bring to mind a conflict within Judaism, raised in a passage of the Talmud in which two rabbis debate the question: “Which is greater, study or action?” One rabbi asserts that action is greater. The other asserts that study is greater. Their followers ultimately conclude that study is greater because it leads to action — a paradoxical rationale, as it suggests that action is the ultimate goal while proclaiming the greater significance of study. As a Stanford student, I often feel trapped in this paradox. If I seek every opportunity to help the community around me, I may not be maximizing my own long-term capacity to learn about the world, develop leadership skills and serve others. If I prioritize my own exposure to ideas, taking advantage of unparalleled freedom to encounter a wide range of expert knowledge, I may tune out urgent issues in the world beyond the bubble.

Two weeks ago, I participated in a Servant Breakfast at the Opportunity Center, a homeless service center adjacent to Town and Country, and found myself reflecting on these questions. Stanford students will readily bike across the street for poke bowls and Trader Joe’s, but probably have no idea that the Opportunity Center even exists. Meanwhile, Servant Breakfast runs every Friday morning, a time slot when plenty of students are available. What’s stopping more Stanford students — including myself, most weeks — from showing up? While it’s snobbish and insensitive to imagine that we are exempt from direct service because we are cultivating ourselves as future leaders, it would also be unfair to claim it is morally obligatory for all Stanford students to volunteer every ounce of free time. Attempting to do so would be exhausting and unsustainable for even the most impassioned and committed person.

Of course, harnessing the privilege of a Stanford education for social good is not a choice between extreme dedication to others and single-minded focus on developing one’s own potential. I don’t call attention to these philosophies so we can sort ourselves into the categories of “learner” and “doer” and consistently defer to the approach with which we most strongly identify, but rather, to acknowledge that these tradeoffs constantly reemerge as we choose how to spend our time at Stanford. While I have not yet come upon a satisfying resolution to this conflict, I believe that asking such questions is an important step in itself. As many of us strive to leverage our Stanford education for social good, it is important to investigate the complexity of that goal and acknowledge that it encompasses many possibilities. To leverage Stanford privilege effectively, we should think critically about the various elements of our Stanford careers and how they intersect to help us fulfill that aspiration.

Finally, I’ve come to recognize that absorbing and acting are not mutually exclusive, but mutually enhancing. Exposure to new perspectives and theories invigorates direct service, while direct service highlights the significance of the ideas we encounter on campus and motivates us to learn more. A dry sponge will do a poor job cleaning up messes; a wet sponge only recognizes the value of water when it comes out from under the faucet and finally starts scrubbing.

 

Contact Courtney Cooperman at ccoop20 ‘at’ stanford.edu.