The wind of freedom wanes

Opinion by Adam Johnson
March 20, 2013, 9:33 p.m.

This past summer, I had the pleasure to attend a play in a derelict Berlin park put on by a local Shakespeare company. I picked up bits and pieces of the plot from the acting, but as far as understanding the words, it may as well have been Euripides. Of the few words I did catch, one stood out: Freiheit. Freedom. The actor, playing some utopian visionary, had one speech where Freiheit was said at least a dozen times. Freiheit. Freedom. In a public park filled with punks doing drugs while little kids kicked soccer balls feet away, the word was all too fitting.

Freedom is why I came to Stanford. Yes, the academics are top notch and the campus is stunning. But going into Admit Weekend, I wasn’t sure I’d fit in. My doubts soon disappeared: I saw students kicking back in the Claw; condoms tossed up in the air during the activities fair; the band jamming around MemAud fountain; a student walking into an ME class wearing pajamas, turning in his PSET, and turning right back around out the door; my (underage) RoHo having a shelf stacked with hard liquor and one of the gates from an RF parking space displayed proudly on the wall.

I loved it. The “I’ll do whatever the fuck I want” spirit and a faculty and staff that, from all appearances, embraced it. Not to say I was, or am, a rebel. But what I saw was a place where students could, amidst all the work, explore and express themselves as they saw fit. Where the future politicians and doctors and entrepreneurs of tomorrow could fuck around today.

Now? This campus seems more stifling with every passing week. Off the top of my head, here’s a list of notable student freedoms eliminated in the four years I have been here: alcohol in row houses can no longer be bought with social dues, campus police have cracked down on bike lights, the Nomad party is no more, XOX lost its lease, hard liquor was prohibited during summer session, the band has been under alcohol suspension, student-run eating clubs have vanished, a nonprofit food truck has been twice kicked off campus, double booked schedules will soon be forbidden, and probably a gazillion other things I don’t know about. And just the other night, residents from Columbae were prevented by police from streaking through Green Library. A harmless activity, halted by armed authorities at the request of university staff. Good grief!

The sad thing is, student freedoms have long been targeted by the powers that be. There may be an outcry, but when these students graduate the struggles that once were are soon forgotten. What was once inconceivable becomes the norm. Give the administration twenty more years along this trajectory, and I can only wonder what the university that I hold dear will become.

Why? Why does the university continue to worship order and conformity, even if just to uphold an inconsequential food truck policy?

Efficiency is likely one justification. In theory, the more uniform Stanford is, the cheaper it can be run. So all walls are painted the same off-white color, all row dining services are contracted to the same vendor, all staffs are hired through ResEd, all food trucks operate through Off the Grid. But maintaining uniformity requires considerable overhead, a fact which seems to be lost on members of this administration. Judging by ever increasing tuition and room and board, operations were undoubtedly far cheaper years ago than they are today. I wonder, though, if the product we receive now is that much, if at all, superior to what alumni received during their time here.

Another oft-cited reason for reducing student freedoms is safety; freedom means students are free to take risks, risks can lead to damage, and damage can lead to bad publicity and lawsuits. If we want to be safe, then, freedoms must be sacrificed. Yet as Benjamin Franklin so wisely said, “he who sacrifices freedom for security deserves neither.” Or, as I often note, the safest society is one in which everyone is locked in a private jail cell with padded walls.

There must be a point, then, at which our commitment to community and freedom trumps safety concerns. I would argue that Stanford passed that point years ago. Of course, administrators would likely respond that they are legitimately concerned with student well-being. Well-being transcends the visible, though, and giving students room to breathe and run naked through libraries can be as important to student health as, say, preventing alcohol abuse.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I’ll say it right now: I’m guilty of this safety-first mindset too. Last year as a freshman RA, I probably stifled my residents’ freedom one too many times in the name of preventing alcohol poisoning. It’s what I was told to do. It’s what I was told was best for the freshman. My experiences as an RA then are why I don’t blame individual administrators for their actions now. I’ve interacted with some of them and generally have had positive impressions. I just think they’re caught in a system that has lost sight of what is truly important.

All this safety and efficiency talk, I’m damn tired of it. The safer we are, the less free we are to explore and take risks. The more efficient (read: uniform) this campus is, the less opportunity for free expression. While these complaints may seem inconsequential, remember that the values students have now are the ones that will carry the day tomorrow. Should we be surprised that our senior class presidents invited Mayor Bloomberg to speak at commencement? A man who values freedom about as much as Tiger Woods values monogamy, invited to spew his ideals to a group of listeners all too eager to soak up his wisdom.

While freedom may just be a buzzword to you, to me it means much more. Freedom is when other people trust me to not fuck up and drive off a cliff. It is the opportunity for me to lose myself, find myself, explore myself, express myself, and engage myself, then lose myself all over again. I may not come out clean and fresh, but I sure as hell enjoyed the ride and probably learned a few things along the way.

Stanford University, please to God remember your motto! Die Luft der Freiheit weht – THE WIND OF FREEDOM BLOWS!

Yesterday marked the end of winter. Oh, powers that be, it’s high time to do some spring cleaning and throw out the fetters that prevent us students from running naked through libraries and running our residential experiences and running our lives! While you’re at it, might I suggest you pull out the Oxi-Clean, grab a rag, and scrub off the grime that presently obscures the first three words of our sacred motto. It’s been in want of a good washing for years now.

How do you feel about these happenings? Email Adam at [email protected].

Adam is a senior from Illinois. He is majoring in Biomechanical Engineering, although his intellectual interests span dozens of departments. This is his second year writing for the Daily (you may remember him from his work last year on the Editorial Board). Outside of writing, Adam enjoys acting, skiing, making music, and thrift-store shopping.

Login or create an account