“You can buy [a T-shirt], but it is not exactly a good investment.”
That is what my tour guide told us, 12 over-eager high school seniors, as we passed the bookstore the first time I toured Stanford. Her implication was simple – the barrier to entry is high. But there was also a more subtle suggestion – she was one of the ones who had made it past that impossible barrier whereas we might not be so lucky. That snippet of the tour, although not noteworthy at the time, provided a window into the Stanford’s ingrained elitism.
Stanford faculty, afraid that newly matriculated students will experience imposter syndrome – the feeling that they did not deserve to be accepted and do not deserve to be here – overcompensate. At nearly every moment of NSO, as well as later in lecture halls and emails, we are told that we are different; we are told that we are special.
The #WelcomeToStanford video produced in 2013 exemplifies this attitude. As the video pans to an aerial shot of main quad on a perfectly sunny day, the Dish in the background, an unnamed member of Stanford’s faculty states, “this is your big, beautiful place,” hinting at the exclusive nature of Stanford’s campus.
Even students consistently validate the opinions and thoughts of their peers based on the mere phrase, “They got in here. They must be smart,” rather than on the merit of the thoughts themselves. And, no matter how much we refuse to admit it, every student relishes the feeling of telling someone that they are a Stanford student, the standard “a university in the Bay Area” answer to the college question seeming to only reinforce in our minds the idea that simply the name of our school is so impressive it must be concealed to ensure an aura of modesty.
In “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education,” William Deresiewicz, American author and former Yale University professor, writes that students at Ivy League institutions, or comparably elite schools such as Stanford, are provided with a false sense of self-worth. Deresiewicz argues that, from the moment of acceptance, we, as students, are provided with a barrage of congratulatory letters and emails from the university, reinforcing our idea that we are uniquely valuable and leading us to believe that they deserve every reward our mere presence on an elite universities campus provides. The world is placed at our fingertips, fellowships and stipends are widely provided, the best professors in the world become our teachers and Silicon Valley beckons to us, and we are convinced that we deserve every opportunity it provides us.
“There is nothing wrong with taking pride in one’s intellect or knowledge,” Deresiewicz writes. “There is something wrong with the smugness and self-congratulation that elite schools connive at from the moment the fat envelopes come in the mail.”
On its surface, this heightened sense of self-worth that Stanford inculcates seems harmless. What, after all, is wrong with providing someone with a greater degree of self-confidence? Deresiewicz, however, distinguishes between pride and smugness, making clear it is not simply confidence with which these schools are inculcating their students, but a sense of inflated value manifesting itself in our belief that we are more valuable than students at other, lower-tier universities. We come to see ourselves as more capable of solving problems and having intellectual conversations, and we limit ourselves to only working and interacting with the people we deem equally capable – our fellow students.
In this way, Stanford’s brand of self-pride is similar to the mentality that infects Silicon Valley as a whole. It is the mentality that leads people in Silicon Valley and Stanford to believe that they can solve problems independently, without the aid of other people outside of their worlds.
This can do nothing but lead to one-dimensional solutions to multi-dimensional problems. When we, as Stanford students, close ourselves off to the possibility of inter-group collaboration, we limit ourselves to understanding a tiny fraction of the world – the four-and-a-half percent of people that are accepted into this university. This four-and-a-half percent tends to be predominantly affluent and overwhelmingly white. The rest of our society becomes nothing but a mere abstraction, theories ripped from the pages of books and the screens of popular television shows. From this type of education, we can only solve problems in the abstract.
The only way to counteract this trend is to chip away at Stanford’s elitism, and that starts with us, as students, examining our own failings and working to recognize the ways we can learn from people outside of Stanford. We do not need to give up the confidence we have in our own abilities, but we need to be able to recognize that our abilities are matched by the abilities of others outside of our world.
Contact Claire Dinshaw at cdinshaw ‘at’ stanford.edu