America is a country of rarefied experience. Credit cards maxed out on needless frivolities, metal wiring to correct dental imperfections, jars bottled with skin-altering substances in every shade. Being born into America means the start of a cycle of desire; specifically, the desire for something better than what is. In this atmosphere of high expectations sits Stanford, a world-renowned university whose resources, opportunities and experiences are nearly unparalleled. As a result of Stanford’s elevated position in an already over-the-top nation, the University’s rhetoric borders on impossible.
Every experience, from the Freshman Scavenger Hunt to Sophomore College to meals at Arrillaga are marketed as perfect. And into this web of expectation comes little room for experiencing an emotion separate from elation. And yes, a certain standard needs to be maintained — after all, $60,000 can buy a whole lot. But the ridiculous models promoted as the norm here at Stanford create pressure to falsify happiness. And maintaining the sentiment that everything at Stanford is right and good is exhausting. What’s more, within this framework of great expectations, any variance becomes amplified as a failure. So you didn’t like Stanford’s NSO (New Student Orientation); that doesn’t mean there is something wrong about or with you, it just means that the Stanford narrative needs to make room for dissatisfaction.
It’s unclear when exactly American life became about the most and the best and all those other superlatives that rely upon a hierarchy in order to exist. But Stanford is the epicenter of this frightening phenomenon. And as the perceived quality of life at this university continues to rise, the palatability of the world shrinks to the point where taking out the trash once a week feels like a burden. Without a broad bandwidth of emotional experience we become crippled by our advances, encumbered by our luxuries. And so Stanford’s culture, rather than expanding our horizons and pushing us towards personal growth, clips our proverbial wings. We are left with a secure sense of self within the confines of a carefully crafted existence, sorely lacking in the skills and state of mind necessary to field all manner of experience.
The capacity of human beings is remarkable, and yet the present tendency of this country and of this university seems to be to undermine this capacity. We are selling ourselves short. We don’t think we can handle it; in fact, we are taught that to be above handling is the favorable approach. This is a great country and a great school, but neither is doing us any favors by fostering helplessness and promoting an unhealthy, unattainable and undesirable method of existing.
In a similar way that parents seek to protect their children from disappointment, so does Stanford, with the best intentions, wish to weave its students into a glittering fabric. It is up to us to speak out against these tendencies to winnow down what’s acceptable. Up to us to seek out opportunities that don’t come pre-packaged and designed for easy consumption. We have to want to work harder, to feel the ups and the downs and lay down our mantle of perfection. The choice is ours.
Contact Hannah Broderick at inbloom ‘at’ stanford.edu.