Op-Ed: The New Yorker got it right… sort of

April 11, 2013, 1:09 a.m.

As soon as Nicholas Thompson’s “The End of Stanford” was published, I immediately wrote an impassioned and angry response. In my four years at Stanford (in Thompson’s words), I thought, I read, I met new people, and I worked on whatever inspired me. I also spent much of my time with people who were involved in areas of study so distant from startups and tech that I felt the article was a blatant mischaracterization of the student body that assumed, based on news coverage, that non-tech students were not a significant or meaningful portion of the student body.

Midway through my response I began to recall how, over my four years, tech did become vastly more prominent in the University’s culture. I recalled many conversations from my junior and senior years in which techies had been dismissive of fuzzies. Certainly most students did not feel superior based on their chosen course of study, but these conversations did occur.

I still believe the article mischaracterizes most of the student body. But as more students began using smartphones (my class entered university roughly a year after the original iPhone launched!) and became more addicted to the internet than ever, we all realized how central tech was to our lives. Every fall quarter, CS106A ballooned to a larger enrollment (about 300 people my freshman year to about 700 people my senior year). Computer science overtook HumBio as the most popular major. Some former Stanford students sold their app to Facebook for a billion dollars. A brand-new Quad for engineering and tech was completed. If you seriously want to state that CS and tech at Stanford are not more prevalent now than they were in 2008… where have you been?

Thompson asserts that the University’s “center of gravity appears to have shifted.” He credits this to some kind of encouragement by the University and its faculty to push students away from traditional educational enrichment/thought and into an alternative startup universe filled with untold riches and fame. To blame the University and faculty for this feels myopic.

The Great Recession led to a national conversation about the state of education in America, and how college students are not emerging with “real skills” for the workforce. This seems to be the actual root of the current situation at Stanford. Students want to feel empowered by their education. Students want to be successful and do not want to be at the mercy of the current job market. As Thomas Friedman of the New York Times recently titled one of his columns: “Need a Job? Invent It.” The message America is sending to the young people of America is that since opportunity out there is limited, you need to pull yourself up and figure it out on your own. Students see computer science, and tech in general, as a way to take control of their destiny in an increasingly unstable modern world.

We are living amidst a technological revolution, and Stanford students are taking up arms in accordance with the zeitgeist. The University’s center of gravity may shift over time, but Stanford students will always think, read, meet new people and do work that we find inspiring.

Daniel Smith ‘12

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