The Mixed Messages of Modernism: The Stanford experience

Nov. 18, 2011, 12:27 a.m.

The Mixed Messages of Modernism: The Stanford experienceBefore we arrived here, we all heard the obligatory generalities about college. The stories are even more enthusiastic when it comes to Stanford grads. “It was insane. I did so much. I learned so much. I met so many great people. I’ll never forget this one time…”


While Stanford and your freshman dorm will try to make you enmesh yourself in the life of our campus, it is easy to withdraw from social life and sleepwalk toward a degree. While it is true of high school that you will have a certain number of formative experiences whether you try or not, Stanford gives us the freedom not to have a college experience. Only here could it be easier to lock yourself up and study than to give into temptation and party the quarters away (simply because of how centralized the social scene is.) Stanford loads on enough work to consume most of your waking hours as you labor away, and many do. Many consider that option to be the most filial thing to do. A high GPA means that your parents’ wish for you to be successful in school and beyond is satisfied. That is true, but only in a limited way, and few would think so narrowly. It is tempting to deny the endeavors that will never make it onto a resume their due value, but performing them is what makes college more valuable than a mere degree.


As tempting and expected as it may be, you should never let your schooling get in the way of your education. Your happiness and the breadth of your learning are priorities that can’t be set aside in the name of success, or else the fullness of your experience and self will be sacrificed.


We should not be trying only to succeed academically in the long term and excel professionally in the short term. There are far more important things to seek than being better adjusted to work and managing a GPA. College’s greatest impact is not in the classroom. The cultivation Stanford offers here only begins in the classroom. Denying yourself nights and days of leisure means denying yourself important self-cultivation. Classes can be taken and retaken later in life at community colleges. Lectures can be heard on YouTube and lessons read from textbooks. It is the fusion of academic and social life and the communal experience of developing maturity that makes the college experience. No one comes here fully set in his or her ways. It is the chance to share the experience of deciding what is important to us and will shape our lives; this provides the education that is truly unique to the college environment.


Your schooling can do all this, too, but only when we take an interest in it beyond its career utility. I always surprised myself by how little I can learn in a class if I am not interested. There have been college classes that I took with such apathy that I couldn’t remember anything about them the quarter after. Translating schooling from factual knowledge to internalized learning isn’t a matter of course — it requires a special variety of effort.


It’s often said in a derisory way that college is the last time in life where you can just screw around. But many mistake not spending time in study for avoiding edification. Stanford students are obviously masterful at delaying gratification, but we can do so at the expense of much of life’s quality. The value of your classes is partly wasted when the material isn’t fodder for a nighttime debate, when it’s not internalized in the everyday. The investment in college is partly wasted when one spends too much time justifying the payment on your room and board (that was a really roundabout way of saying “staying inside.”) A successful career is a waste if it’s not accompanied by something good or pleasurable. I believe this wholeheartedly.


As much as our campus seems to push you to go out for clubs and plan your quarters to help build a resume, I advise a different regimen. Go do something intentionally useless and enjoyable. There’s nothing like a break, so seize the day to not seize the day and you may find you’ve achieved more than one can when chained to a desk.


First step to seize the day: email Spencer at dsnelson “at” stanford “dot” edu.

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