Students, alumni reflect on ‘liberal-arts failure’

April 11, 2012, 1:00 a.m.

“I think [a liberal arts education] is available here if students want it,” said Philip Taubman ’70. “I’m just not sure how many go after it.”

Wall Street recruitment of elite university students has gained increased media attention in recent months and was one of the main topics addressed at a discussion in Crothers hall Tuesday.

The discussion, facilitated by Taubman and Felicity Barringer ’72, both former Daily editors in chief, reflected on Ezra Klein’s article “Harvard’s Liberal-Arts Failure Is Wall Street’s Gain.” Klein argues that the Wall Street lure for successful graduates from elite schools can be attributed to the failure of liberal arts education.

Barringer and Taubman shared their own experiences at Stanford in an open and informal dialogue with the audience of students. Both cited protests and activism as chief characteristics of their time at Stanford that contributed to the way students viewed their education.

“People weren’t really thinking that much about what they would do after they graduated,” said Taubman, a consulting professor at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) and associate vice president for University affairs.


“A lot of people were thinking about what they could do while they were here in various ways politically,” Taubman said. “There was less of a sense that the education that you got as an undergraduate was going to be your ticket into the job market.”

The original topic of Wall Street recruitment soon evolved into a dialogue covering academics at Stanford as a whole, with subjects ranging from major requirements to political activism on campus.

Some students described the political atmosphere as apathetic while others referenced the changes in technology that have made it easier to participate, but have also created a simplified version of political activism, also known as “slacktivism.”

One major point of discussion was entrepreneurship, which many students said they feel has been watered down by the start-up craze and the low-risk environment facilitated by support from Silicon Valley.

While the Ezra Klein article used Harvard, Yale and Princeton as references, many students found the themes discussed to be prevalent at Stanford, as well.

“I thought the topic was interesting, but it was more interesting to see how disillusioned a lot of us are,” Hilary Wilson ’14 said of the discussion. “Some people were saying that Stanford hasn’t met their expectations and how little political activism they think exists at Stanford.”

Rebecca Hsu ’10, found the exploration of the decision-making process for post-graduate career choices particularly interesting, having witnessed many of her peers decide to work in finance.

“I thought it was a really fresh dialogue on the state of elite university education today and questioning the real value of our education and how it relates to the real world,” Hsu said.

Participants all noted that the discussion had evolved to cover much larger themes and issues in elite university education.

Barringer, who entered the discussion with the question of how students today view the purpose of a Stanford education, found even parts of this lens limiting.

“To take it into a fuzzy-techy simple dichotomy is doing no justice to the subtlety of Stanford students’ thinking about their education and their future lives,” Barringer said.

Some of the themes in the discussion explored liberal arts education as a whole while others pointed to Stanford-specific issues. Barringer, however, said she believes that Stanford has its own strengths and characteristics that set it apart from its peer institutions.

“Stanford’s personality is openness to lots of new ways of thinking,” Barringer said. “Intellectual entrepreneurship is more part of the DNA of the Stanford student body.”

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