Intellectual commerciality over intellectual vitality

May 18, 2018, 5:00 a.m.

In the 1885 Stanford University Founding Grant, Leland Stanford and Jane Lathrop Stanford put forth their fundamental principles for the university and its students. In describing the overarching goals of the institution, the Stanfords were setting the tone for the university’s present and future spirit of education, as many of its peer institutions had done for hundreds of years.

The Founding Grant boils down to three things: a nature, an object and a purpose. The nature supports the “cultivation and enlargement of the mind.” Its object, “to qualify its students for personal success and direct usefulness in life.” Its purposes, “to promote the public welfare by exercising an influence in behalf of humanity and civilization.”

While the creation of this grant is rather traditional to the founding of a university, Stanford’s grant is exceptional in its prose and purpose — both of which have pervaded through the school’s history to create the unique “Stanford spirit” our university is known for. On these 133-year-old principles, Stanford has embodied “intellectual vitality,” innovation through Silicon Valley and unparalleled entrepreneurship, all of which satisfy the grant’s standards. Indeed, our school frames its history in such a way that it is defined by influences rooted in entrepreneurship and innovation. Engineer and Stanford Professor Frederick Terman pushed students to not only cultivate their ideas but to commercialize them in places like Silicon Valley; in 1951, Stanford created a Research Park to house innovation firms for startups; HP, Google, PayPal and hundreds of other tech companies found their academic basis at Stanford. Our university’s past has thus been represented by, influenced by and financially dependent upon the innovation and commercial success of its entrepreneurial alums.

It makes sense that Stanford has become increasingly geared toward specific Silicon Valley-oriented majors and their entrepreneurial-minded students. The Funding Grant, after all, implies that its graduating students must “qualify” for “direct usefulness in life” and “exercis[e] an influence” on the world around them. Though written in a much different time than today, such phrasings and word choices are indicative of the type of school Stanford was and Leland intended it to be. Taken out of the original 1885 context and applied to our school today, the Grant’s words have come to mean “innovation” and “usefulness” in the form of CS or technology advancements — when people think of Stanford, they think CS, not classics. As indicated by the tech-centered way Stanford presented its history and in the way students refer to Stanford as an innovation hub, the choice to go into more vocationally-oriented fields feels natural. After all, Stanford has always encouraged, fostered and rewarded ingenuity … but seemingly only in the context of a directly commercialized, vocational setting.

It is implied that students, with their embodied knowledge and intellectual vitality, will then use this knowledge to exert influence on society through the work they do. “Enlargement of the mind” may come first, but the end goal is inevitably “direct usefulness in life” — as broadly defined as that may be. If intellectual vitality comes only as a by-product or simple step in the road toward a high-profile job, the implications are dire.

So if “direct usefulness” sits at the heart of our school’s education, where does “intellectual vitality” really fit in? Should “direct usefulness” translate to Terman’s Silicon Valley ideal of commercialized thoughts? Does knowledge for the sake of knowledge find friction with the relentless need to “exercise influence”?

Of course, the words of the Founding Grant can be taken out of its 1885 context — and yet, its basic tenets and innovation-oriented themes still stand true today. Stanford was founded on and has perpetuated a culture in which the emphasis on vocational application within an undergraduate degree program far outweighs the pursuit of pure, academic interest within an undergraduate major.

Stanford’s undergraduate education is set up on such a way that the “winds of freedom” do, in fact, blow. Compared to peer institutions like Columbia University or Yale University, Stanford students have an unprecedented amount of freedom when choosing classes. We are not bound by a strict set of core classes, nor a Western civilization requirement (removed in the 1980s after a series of on-campus protests). While this allows students to take pretty much any courses they desire, it lends itself to many students shirking breadth of knowledge in favor of their major and their major alone — it is a manifestation of the almost too-focused, anti-intellectual vitality mindset implicit in our grant.

If cultivating the mind is the precursor to vocational usefulness, this leaves little room for pursuing intellectual interests outside the realm of what we know and are comfortable with. Too many times, humanities students (“fuzzies”) or engineering/sciences students (“techies”) skirt their way past respective requirements. Trolling through Carta for the “easy” science classes, the “low-writing” humanities lectures or the “fuzzy-oriented” math classes, students are willingly sacrificing their “intellectual vitality” in order to pursue better grades or their major — essentially, what they are good at. And it makes sense … who would want to take a class that unnecessarily put their GPA at further risk?

What I’m arguing here is that students are too willing to perpetuate the words of Stanford’s Founding Grant in such a way that it further aggravates the “tech-fuzzy” divide and acts completely against the “intellectual vitality” that brought us here in the first place.

It is not enough that Stanford students come to get a top-tier education in their field and their field alone. We must hold each other — and our school — accountable for the fact that both the insular academic culture in our school and the structure of our education allow students to slip through the cracks in our “liberal arts” education.

This is reflected in the watering down of requirements over the last decade. As mentioned in my previous article on freshman requirements, the THINK program is a cheapened take on a true liberal arts education. With the implementation of THINK and the removal of IHUM, SIMILE and a centralized core of humanities classes, STEM-oriented students are able to get through Stanford without taking more than a handful of entirely non-STEM classes. Likewise, with the weaker WAYS science requirements, humanities-oriented students can sneak through Stanford without stepping foot in the Engineering Quad. Training students in-depth in one area without any regard to the value of knowledge in other fields is thus a disservice to the fundamental ideals of this school; though vocational “usefulness” is key in the Founding Grant, a broader “cultivation of the mind” should take precedence.

There is, of course, sound reasoning to choosing a more job-oriented path within an undergraduate program. In thinking about a post-college world and job market, it is practical to gravitate toward those majors that are deemed more economically safe for our long-term careers. Though we may choose pre-professional paths or majors according to an end-goal paycheck, that does not mean our education needs to be necessarily limited to such narrow undergraduate studies. If our undergraduate career is to be the place in which we explore our wildest, weirdest academic interests, students should be encouraged to — regardless of the end goal.

Encouraging students to take more than the required WAYS classes out of sheer interest would require a massive culture shift. But to mitigate the intellectual vocationality that has gripped our institution, Stanford could take measures to improve the structure of our liberal arts education — perhaps even reintroduce an interdisciplinary humanities core. If Stanford truly hopes to “qualify its students for personal success,” the way we prepare our students should be shaped so that they can operate as knowledgable citizens in areas that reach beyond their scope of expertise. If Stanford truly hopes to mitigate the “tech-fuzzy” divide, it would take steps to strengthen its requirements in such a way that students have to experience a broader extent of knowledge — science, math, social sciences or otherwise.

After all, the Founding Grant may be the past basis on which our school culture was designed, but that does not mean its outdated interpretation need be prolonged to the detriment of academic curiosity.

Contact Elizabeth Lindqwister at liz ‘at’

Elizabeth Lindqwister is a senior from Peoria, Illinois, majoring in history. She is the Vol. 259 Public Editor, having previously served as the Vol. 257 Executive Editor and Vice President. Find her at CoHo or liz 'at'

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