Earlier this quarter, I woke up one morning to an unforgettable text:
“Dude, you’re on the front page of Jihad Watch.” And sure enough, on the screenshot sent over to me, there was a picture of me grinning widely under the Jihad Watch banner.
A few weeks later, an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal boldly suggested that campus protesters have “given up” on resisting Charles Murray. His rationale? The protest against him seemed to the author “formulaic and insipid.” He also didn’t like the rap performance we had during the rally.
I can’t help but observe something interesting out of incidents like this, which is that these people seem to assign a bizarrely high amount of weight to the actions of random college students doing typical, unremarkable college student things: Writing op-eds in campus papers and doing spoken word.
Here at Stanford, we are strangely reverent to the narrative that we live and study in an enclosed bubble, separate and distinct from the real world outside. And on some level, it does seem like we live in a different world at Stanford: We have an unreasonably beautiful and manicured campus; most of our students come from and live in immense privilege; our culture and our students are hopelessly nerdy; our on-campus jobs pay abnormally high wages … you could go on like this for a while.
But if this campus seems keen on separating us from the world, the world seems even more keen to see what we’re up to. If you look back at the headlines from earlier, my name wasn’t in the Jihad Watch headline – Stanford’s was. As for The Wall Street Journal op-ed, it wasn’t just the protesters that the author found “insipid”; instead, it read, “Stanford appeared to have exhausted itself.”
We may live in a bubble, but we are wrong to pretend like we are removed from the effects of the real world, because there is a significant segment of the world that associates a great deal of meaning with the Stanford brand (due in no small part to its meticulous cultivation by the administration).
Reverence for that brand is certainly not universal – least of all here on campus, where I know many of us here would hesitate to brag about our elite status. While we are probably right to not let that get to our heads, that is not going to magically wish away our elite reputation, and the requisite attention that comes with that reputation.
It is a reputation that makes headlines that mention “Stanford” or “Stanford students” catchy, because there is an inherent ethos attached to those phrases. The credibility of that word “Stanford” makes whatever thing Stanford professors or students do seem important, or ingenious, or trend-setting. And that sentiment is precisely what drove a Wall Street Journal contributor to be able to suggest that college campuses – all college campuses in America – are warming up to Charles Murray after seeing only what happened at Stanford. In other words, because of our perceived standing, the impact of our actions are always amplified, because we are part of an institution that has successfully marketed itself as a place characterized by innovative ways of thinking and doing, and that apparently includes our actions as undergraduates as well.
Whether we like it or not, whether we deserve it or not, we are viewed as special because we are Stanford, and with that comes a group of people at the ready to analyze our every move, and to use that analysis – however flawed – to draw conclusions for the entire generation. Because we live inside the bubble, we focus only on the constraining force that keeps us inside. But, what we miss is that the walls of the bubble – regardless how solid they seem, are nonetheless invisible – and the subject of countless observers constantly watching from the outside. Even as we feel cut off from the world, the world sees us, and what we do impacts the world.
Contact Terence Zhao at zhaoy ‘at’ stanford.edu.