While working for Stanford Pre-Collegiate Studies (SPCS) this summer, I met a disarmingly wise 13-year-old novelist. Flying home as an unaccompanied minor, she needed a chaperone to see her safely through the terminal and onto her plane, a responsibility requiring abundant patience, a government-issued ID and an inhuman tolerance for lukewarm airport sushi: my specialty. Up until departure day, we’d only talked in passing, usually when I — flexing my in loco parentis powers — begged her to keep it quiet after lights out. Then in those final hours at SFO, she confided in me that her three short weeks at Stanford had shown her the kind of intellectual community she’d always wanted and never before been a part of.
“So, what’re you gonna do after college?” was the most common question I got from the SPCS kids (followed closely by “Do you have a girlfriend?” and “Are you in a frat?”). With the start of senior year hurrying near (like, you might say, a wingèd chariot), that question was a particularly sore spot for me. In order to answer (or maybe avoid) it, I spent much of my summer reflecting on what I have and haven’t found at Stanford.
I began by feeling bitter. From the start there were attitudes I just couldn’t share, in-groups I could never be a part of, foremost among them a gay community in which I saw no space for myself. It’s difficult to express how disheartening that has been. A sense of academic direction also falls into that latter category; just ask me why I’m majoring in philosophy. And like many at Stanford, I found my freshman year friend group too comfortable for my own good. By my second year, I believed I’d met all the people worth meeting — all six or seven of them, that is.
I was partly (but not entirely) wrong. Of course, it’s human nature to take what’s good for granted, while grievances come easily to mind. The keen words of an even keener 13-year-old taught me better. At Stanford I, too, found my intellectual community. To me, that means more than just friends with similar academic interests, as sick as it is to know people who pass their time debating whether all literature is necessarily art, to give a single example of the sort of fat my friends chew.
What matters is that my closest friends and I sometimes find ourselves at fundamental disagreements. It’s not that before coming to Stanford my friends always agreed with me. Rather, I hadn’t yet made friends so willing to sympathetically explain and seriously interrogate their own opinions, particularly when someone else finds fault with them. Granted, at some level, friendships cannot be reduced to reasons for liking someone. Still, such gameness and messy bravery are surely the heart of any vital intellectual community. This Stanford gave me before I was even smart enough to search for it.
Last week you may have read the troubling news that “freedom of expression is deeply imperiled on U.S. campuses.” Chewed and thoroughly digested, John Villasenor’s survey of the attitudes of college students toward the First Amendment and freedom of speech more generally has made its way from The Washington Post to The Wall Street Journal and now back to this the cloaca, college journalism. Villasenor paints a grim picture of petulant, disruptive malcontents who see speech they don’t care for as violence and see actual violence as an appropriate response to such speech. The conclusion? Shake in your booties, you upholders of traditional liberal values.
That’s patently not been my experience at Stanford. (It may well be at Berkeley, but then there’s a reason you and I are here and not there.) In your four years here, as at any point in life, you take the good with the bad. Despite the despicably positive vibes in your freshman dorm, the fact that your school is harder to get into than Harvard and [insert truism about the pleasant Bay Area weather], you will find this place lacking in some respect or other.
As intellectual communities go, you won’t do much better. I only wish that as a freshman I knew to embrace disagreement as I fully as I try to today. You don’t have to agree with anyone, passively or otherwise, especially for social gain. You need not even respect opinions you don’t share, but you should always be interested in the arguments underpinning them. Otherwise college can be like the most boring seminar imaginable, one in which every participant vacantly approves of every point made, complete with slam poetry snapping.
Contact Iain Espey at iespey ‘at’ stanford.edu.