One of the things that has never ceased to amaze me about Stanford is just how elite it is. From the famous people we get to randomly meet at events to the let’s-change-the-world outlook to the sheer weight of the Stanford name as a byword for excellence, the elite status of this school is constantly being reinforced, both in us as students and in the outside world, to the point of obnoxiousness.
For some time after I had arrived here, I thought I could use the fact that I grew up poor as a crutch to escape the association with elitism. But, eventually, I realized just how contrived this crutch had become. As I was shaped by that background, that background was becoming more and more irrelevant the longer I was at Stanford, outweighed by the progressively larger amount of privilege I am able to enjoy, accumulated through my Stanford education and my Stanford credentials. And now, as I am about to leave this place, it is clear to me, looking at my fellow graduates: We’re all elites now.
And we go forth from Stanford in truly extraordinary times. If you talk to me in person, you probably would have heard me summarize the incredible developments of our current times as the fact that we live in the worst fucking timeline — which, by the way, I think is true. But, to put it in less facetious terms, perhaps, we live in a time where the existing order of things appear to be crumbling. Crises and disasters of all kinds are amplified to unprecedented magnitudes; palpable frictions within the body politic explode into open riot in an instant; the long-accepted status quo is falling apart at the seams; and institutions that were once deeply familiar, predictable and reputable have plunged into disorder that baffle the most experienced observers. Stanford — an elite institution that forms the academic pillar of the present world order — is not exempt from this disintegration. And, in the wake of the admissions scandal (in which Stanford was, of course, directly implicated) and declining public confidence in our meritocracy (such as it is) in general, this institution’s reputation and power, too, could be shattered.
For all of Stanford’s devotion to idea of innovation, it is also traditional in the sense that its eliteness replicates itself, and it does so through us, the students. We have been trained to be custodians to carry on this legacy — to be the next set of names in the register of prominent alumni. However, by carrying on the eliteness of Stanford, we must recognize that we have become socialized to be part of, work within and ultimately maintain the system that sustains that eliteness to begin with. And in a time when that system is facing extraordinary strains, when crises appear structural, and when the way things are as we know it could very well soon be no more, mere maintenance seems hardly sufficient.
As President Obama once said, “I don’t want to learn how to play the game better; I want to put an end to the game-playing.” It is always easier to stay on the beaten path, to simply do what has always been done and to strive to maintain the way things are. However, if there is ever a time to dispense with business as usual, this might be it. We could rest on Stanford’s laurels and carry on as usual in the hopes that if we just play the same old game a little better, things could go back to normal. Or, we could bravely go forth, leverage the immense privilege we have been bequeathed and confront our crises by creating anew.
In the past four years, I have written in the belief that the way things are is not the way things have to be, and that another, better world is possible, and I am so grateful for everyone along the way who has imagined with me together what that world might look like. We are living through truly trying times, but at the same time, I am also deeply hopeful for a better future that I know mankind could build together. To quote the legendary Jon Stewart:
“Let’s talk about the real world for a moment … I don’t really know to put this, so I’ll be blunt: We broke it … Somewhere between the gold rush of easy internet profits and an arrogant sense of endless empire, we heard kind of a pinging noise, and uh, then the damn thing just died on us. So I apologize.
But here’s the good news. You fix this thing, you’re the next greatest generation.”
Contact Terence Zhao at zhaoy ‘at’ stanford.edu.