Senior Column: Stanford? I’m ambivalent

Opinion by Jasmine Liu
June 10, 2020, 11:26 p.m.

“How’s Stanford? Do you like it?” 

As a freshman, I fielded this question over and over again for friends and family when I returned home for Thanksgiving and winter break. I was no good at these conversations. I was too attached to being honest; or, less heroically and more precisely, I was bad at reviewing my experiences tactfully in a few brief sentences. On one panicked visit home, I burst out crying while telling my parents how much I hated the neglect of the humanities at Stanford. By the next, I was gushing about Stanford’s ethos of accessibility and egalitarianism. I sent my parents into a tailspin with my erratic and contradictory reports.

In writing a senior column now, I am encouraged to redress the failures of my freshman year, to make a final attempt to package my undergraduate experiences in a way that can be intelligible to and informative for others. My first impulse was to shirk this task, or at most, to write positively and hopefully (if vacuously) about my undergraduate years. There is much I have loved during my time at Stanford, and it would not be difficult to fill an article recounting all of those things that have brought me joy. All the same, I realized that I could only honestly characterize my opinion of Stanford as one of ambivalence.

Informally, saying, “I’m ambivalent” is akin to saying, “I don’t care,” but this is not the sense in which I am using the word. I am actually trying to say the opposite: that I have intensely mixed and contradictory feelings toward Stanford. I have nurtured some of the greatest friendships of my life at Stanford, and if I can claim that I have something called an “identity,” I owe it in large part to the people I have met here. That being said, I constantly fret that my networks at Stanford have closed me off from people outside the Stanford bubble, and I worry that I have embedded myself in undeniably elite circles. 

In seminars and lectures, I have grappled with ideas that have put into question everything else I thought I knew. In these settings, I contended with the violent consequences of classical liberal tenets which I had been unquestioningly reverent of in high school; I questioned my received need to ground all novels and artworks in historical fact; I considered for the first time what it meant to live with an awareness of death. Subsequently, I have obsessed over these ideas: in heated discussions with my friends, by checking out library books, while meeting with professors in office hours. Encountering these ideas has shaken my world, and I can never go back to a state of innocence, so to speak. But still, I constantly wonder if I am any closer to something truthful, and if I am not losing contact with what is obvious and commonsensical. 

Stanford faculty have opened a world of inquiry to me in the form of art, literature and scholarship, and what paltry amount I have been exposed to here will surely cascade into other and more peculiar finds that I still have yet to discover. Nevertheless, I often feel uneasy that my thirst for art and knowledge has somehow overtaken my thirst for real life, whatever that might be. I am concerned, too, that Stanford falsely convinces me I am “sophisticated” or “cultured” in ways that I despise when I see it in others. 

Then there’s Stanford as an institution, which I am less ambivalent and more unambiguously critical about. Its academic identity crisis and its bent toward careerism are two institutional flaws I have criticized in writing in Daily articles, and both were informed by my own experiences. Aside from these characteristics of Stanford, which are not incidental but at least still fixable, there is no escaping the reality that Stanford is consecrated only for those who are “chosen” — whether on the basis of wealth or merit, or most likely both. Recent activism, in combination with a quarter away from campus, has made this fact so unjustifiably clear: Stanford students, faculty and administrators can only pursue the ideal of academic freedom while underpaid and underrecognized service workers labor day and night to provide for the basic needs of we who are the “chosen.” This situation is not the least bit fair, yet it is what has made possible the incredibly rich experiences I have had in the past four years.

Why recount this ambivalence at all, during a time of year conventionally designated for nostalgic reminiscence? For one thing, our collective remove from campus life, compounded with the epochal events of this spring, have rendered these picturesque moments Stanford advertises — and which I have relished in their time — as trivial in comparison. More importantly, and for another, I have learned to embrace ambivalence. “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes,” I read in high school. The rhythm of those lines appealed to me then, but I did not consider their meaning to be profound. On the cusp of graduation, I have grasped that living in this space of contradiction is the clearing to self-understanding and a broader understanding of the world. (And also, in the end, that those two things are one and the same.) 

If I am to close on one final note, then, it is that I am grateful that Stanford has allowed me to be ambivalent — that it has, in fact, cultivated this ambivalence in me. Ambivalence did not come naturally to me as a former high school debater and opinions writer. For a long time, I tirelessly and stupidly sought to smooth out the contradictions in my life which I could not resolve, and I took any unsettled contradiction as a personal failure. Now I understand that ambivalence — which for the last time, is not disinterest but rather the cohabitation of investments that are powerfully, even violently, at odds with each other — is a gift.

Jasmine Liu ’20 was Managing Editor of Opinions for Volume 256 and is the Editorial Board Chair for Volume 257. 

Contact Jasmine Liu at jliu98 ‘at’

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Jasmine Liu is a senior staff writer and writes for Opinions and Arts & Life.

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