One of the greatest contradictions at the heart of the modern elite university is its general refusal to explicitly prepare its students for eventual professional careers — even as it almost by definition attracts the students most qualified for, and dedicated to pursuing, eventual professional careers. This contradiction, while in many senses inevitable, also has a host of negative consequences that both elite universities and their students need to acknowledge and address.
One will search the undergraduate catalogues at Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Columbia and our very own Stanford in vain for majors in pre-law, pre-med, pre-dental, pre-veterinary, pre-physical therapy and the like. One instead finds anthropology, history, mathematics, biology, chemistry — the pure subjects, unsullied by the tainted aura of vocational training. The closest nascent investment bankers can come to finance is economics, while aspiring CEOs looking for a business major will have to be satisfied with management science and engineering.
That is far from the case at most public universities in America. Nearly all state schools allow their students to begin preparation for a post-university professional career immediately upon entrance, with majors in pre-law, nursing or business open to students with a well-defined sense of their own future.
Stanford, like other elite private universities, eschews that model, for mostly good reasons. The purpose of a liberal arts education, after all, is to cultivate in its graduates a thorough foundation in the arts and sciences; to instill its students with the ability to reason and analyze critically; to equip its inchoate scholars with facilities of broad learning, rather than narrow factual knowledge and memorized technical skills. Single-mindedly pursuing a career from the moment one sets foot on campus closes innumerable avenues of fruitful learning, precluding the opportunity for sustained, meaningful engagement with literature, philosophy and the lessons of history.
But Stanford’s approach to learning has its drawbacks too.
One of them is the hypocrisy and doubletalk it engenders among elite students, most of whom got here by always thinking about the step ahead. The implicit cultural shadow the elite university model casts upon pre-professionalism discourages an open acknowledgment of future career goals — among the students most likely to be heatedly pursuing them behind the scenes. The result is a sort of mutant variant on the famous Stanford duck syndrome, in which some students quack loudly about deep intellectual thoughts on the surface while paddling furiously toward career goals underwater.
You may recognize this syndrome’s symptoms: the pre-med who feigns scholarly interest in the material from lecture when talking to his TA, but really just wants the problem set answers so he can scrape an A- on the midterm; the apparent Econ enthusiast who’ll forget everything she learned in the 50-series as soon as she gets the summer internship at Goldman; the PoliSci major with her eyes on the professor but her mind on law school.
There are more specific, less nebulous reasons to worry about this model as well. One of them stems from elite education’s upper-crust origins in the world of silver spoons and the Social Register, Downton Abbey and Skull and Bones — a world in which universities conferred culture and class, rather than added economic or professional value, simply because their students could afford not to worry about it. For students whose trust funds will make up the difference between a degree in finance and one in eighteenth-century French literature, pre-professionalism might seem uncouth. But for low-income or first-generation students with families to support after college, a high-paying job can be a necessity, not a luxury.
In this unsustainable tension between elite universities struggling to get their students to think outside the box and elite students struggling to be the best at filling boxes in, something has to give. Both sides have some work to do.
Students should recognize that deep engagement with learning as an end in itself, rather than a means to future success, is the best guarantee of future success. In an era of globalization and breakneck competition, the intellectual leaders of tomorrow will be thinkers capable of drawing connections between disciplines, engaging with several planes of thought at once, reasoning creatively rather than applying old formulae to ever-shifting problems. As former Harvard president Larry Summers pointed out in the New York Times, instant access to factual knowledge via the Internet is gradually rendering fact-based learning less important; the best doctors and lawyers of tomorrow will rely less and less on memorized bits of law or anatomy.
But elite universities should also be more open about the presence of rampant pre-professionalism in the ranks, even if for no other reason than to combat it more effectively. Pretending it doesn’t exist does no one any favors.
Let Miles know what you think at milesu1 “at” stanford “dot” edu.