From the Community | Table Talk

Nov. 28, 2022, 12:34 a.m.

At this late hour of Stanford history, can anyone hope to bring up a serious subject in a dining hall? Every so often I listen in on campus table talk, only to be a little disappointed. All of it seems general — all of it about asking for the hundredth time which courses someone is taking, or what they plan to major in, or whether they, too, find the pollock objectionable. Too often when someone advances toward a serious idea they retire swiftly, conversation palls, and the table scrambles to lower the tone of conversation. Kanye West (one hears), is a bad human being. Now, what of the latest Fizz post?

Such banalities dominate not just the talk at dining hall tables, but the talk in section, in lounges, in Main Quad: everywhere, in short, that Stanford students gather. And yet, each of these students, if whisked away for half an hour, is not poor company; they all have opinions on serious matters; they are willing to talk about them at some length. Why, then, is Stanford not made up of a thousand Bloomsburies? Why have so many extraordinary individuals made for a culture that is altogether unextraordinary?

That the social life of Stanford is in a bad way is by now a commonplace. Articles have been written about it in Palladium, The Stanford Daily, and the Stanford Review. Each of these writers has made much of the party scene, has cited the administration’s efforts to thwart or dampen it as proof of Stanford’s decadence, and is agreed that the brilliancy, creativity, and irreverence that once distinguished Stanford have long gone. The college has slunk into a fatal torpor from which it is unlikely to awake.

They are right, of course. Parties do signal irreverence. Bureaucrats do meddle where they shouldn’t. But much as I agree with them on what the University is now, I can’t make myself share their vision of what it ought to be. The troubles of Stanford aren’t, I think, purely social: at bottom they are intellectual and spiritual. Stanford isn’t to be judged by how often its undergraduates drink or party, important as those things are. Stanford, in my view, is to be judged by its table talk.

The word “spiritual” may make you recoil — I’m skeptical of it myself — but the University does have a spirit, and I shall try to explain what I mean by it.

In the first place, the University exists so that its students may lead the life of the mind: so they may seek truth and search for beauty, and in so doing come to recognize the limits of those pursuits. Of course, the University does much else besides: it prepares students for their careers, offers them something of an education, and helps them along on the way to adulthood. All of that is good and important. But to be a student at a University is, above all, to accept an invitation to the intellectual life.

For each of us has a complex of impressions and attitudes and values that, even if it doesn’t fully stand up to questioning, supports all that we build on top of it. Like an invisible armature this framework of ideas shapes every new belief we have about art, or science, or politics, or what you will. Many of these beliefs are bequests from authority, and as time passes many of them inevitably come to show their seams. There are of course those who’ve never doubted the assumptions they’ve lived by; they are, in the psychologist William James’ phrase, the “once-born.” But most of us doubt: we can’t help it, our strength goes that way, and once we do we are, as it were, born again. “In the religion of the twice-born,” James says,

“the world is a double-storied mystery. Peace cannot be reached by the simple addition of pluses and elimination of minuses from life. Natural good is not simply insufficient in amount and transient, . . . there lurks a falsity at its very being. . . . [it] can never be the thing in tended for our lasting worship.”

Which in other words means that the twice-born make life more trouble than it needs to be. And quite right, too. People who are successful in a worldly sort of way are often opposed to this; they are convinced they know what’s what, and in their brisk, aggressive way refuse to entertain a pure idea for more than a minute. I detest and fear such people. They seem to me coarse, their worldview gauche and bereft of beauty. College should be a protest against their ways; and to accept an offer of admission is, I’m convinced, to heed the call to be born again.

But heed how? William Blake in Jerusalem has the angel Los put it like this —

I must Create a System, or be enslav’d by another Mans

I will not Reason & Compare: my business is to Create

Which Los does, in “fury & strength.” Once an old view has given way, we the twice-born must arm ourselves again; and to refortify ourselves like this, Blake says, is “to create a system.” He is clear, too, about what happens to those who don’t do this: they are enslav’d by another Mans. One does not adopt a system, in Blake’s sense, as one chooses a new pair of socks or a new shade of highlighter. It’s far more vital and profound than that. 

And we needn’t answer alone, either. The call is sounded not just to individuals but to all of us together. No one can drift alone in the world of ideas; no one can spin a good system in mid-air without even once having made contact with the world. If a system is to have any value it must evolve through talk, out of some wish to make sense of the world together. That feeling of being bound to one another, not by some set of courses, not by some quirk of identity, but by a shared intellectual quest, is what the college experience ought to be about. That, as much as Eurotrash, must give the University its spirit.

For everything is against the likelihood that an individual can cultivate himself on his own. As a culture draws on, as a tradition lengthens, it can no longer be possessed whole and entire by a single individual. Plays and paintings and novels and sonatas all vie for our attention; all of this must be marked, docketed, filed away; and once that is done, a little of it must be enjoyed. The second we may do alone; the first however needs institutions. As stewards of this material, libraries, museums, theaters, and opera houses all serve their turn, but the greatest steward of all is the University.

I’d bet that this is the ideal most people cherish of the University. They may say that the University as it stands does no such thing. But if I, a foreigner, were to ask an American where the best and highest of American culture ought to be embodied, he would point to the University. This, he would say, is where men and women go to cultivate themselves.

Of course, a quick look out the window will disprove him. The very set-up of the classroom conspires against him. There the professor is supreme: she hands out the grades; he directs the conversation. One need never talk sense to anyone else. After a while the stop-start rhythm of the quarter system takes over; one ends the quarter no better acquainted with the other students than at the beginning. The next class beckons, except the humanities curriculum has grown so fragmented and perfunctory that nothing need ever build on anything else, and the teachers must presume their new batches of students—not unjustly—to be in a state of perpetual ignorance about everything.

These complaints aren’t new. I daresay anyone who’s taken a Stanford course has had them. The classroom is not where we go to cultivate ourselves, which is why, perhaps, most people I know who take the intellectual life at all seriously chase the ideas that intrigue them all on their own. But it’s a lonely pursuit; always one feels an idea pressing in, nudging insistently, crying out to be talked over, only to find no one to talk it over with. And life gallops on; the University is a mint; there is money to be made and far too many people wishing to make it. Before one knows it, crass commercial necessity has sent the idea, whatever it was, back into hiding.

But why shouldn’t ideas be at the forefront of the University’s social life? Why shouldn’t the life outside classrooms be devoted—if only in part—to questions of the mind? Why shouldn’t we discuss Whitman or Keynes or Galois every so often at dinner? And why, instead of managing it ourselves, should we ask the University to foster this? For I don’t think it can; or, in any case, I doubt it can do better than to point to its classes and lectures, and ask what use we have made of those. No; if ideas are to matter at the University, they must matter to us, its students. So long as we cordon off the social from the intellectual, it is futile to take the University to task for its air of deep malaise.

Is this a strange conception of the University? Our image of the intellectual is of the lonely recluse shut up in her room, scribbling away on note-paper: Sylvia Plath perhaps, or Emily Dickinson. It would not have surprised the ancients, though. Socrates talked in the marketplace; the Indian rishis gabbled together in the forest. Nor would it have surprised a certain type of Oxford student. In The Moving Toyshop, an Oxonian who reaches Oxford late at night is momentarily worried about finding a bed to sleep in—

. . . suddenly he smiled. Such things didn’t matter in Oxford. He had only to climb over the wall of his college (he’d done it often enough in the old days, God knows) and sleep on a couch in somebody’s sitting-room. Nobody would care; the owner of the sitting-room would be neither surprised nor annoyed. Oxford is the one place in Europe where a man may do anything, however eccentric, and arouse no interest or emotion at all. In what other city, Cadogan asked himself, remembering his undergraduate days, could one address to a policeman a discourse on epistemology in the witching hours of the night, and be received with neither indignation nor suspicion?

Such scenes may no longer play out at Oxford: I wouldn’t know. Perhaps after Oscar Wilde no clever student has ever walked through Magdalen College. But truth or fantasy, isn’t it a lovely idea, and a lovely ideal? For why shouldn’t the intellectual life be a public affair, communal and companionable?

I’m not asking for a crowd of undergraduates all grave, withdrawn, sérieux. I’m asking instead for the college that Cadogan remembers—a light and playful place, whose students have nothing of the solemnity of a cloistered disciplinarian, but a puckish intelligence that glides smoothly and quietly, apparently still, but that then, with a mischievous wink, sails off and away.

And so I don’t think I differ so drastically from the writers who wrote the articles for Palladium or the Daily or the Review. Our call is for the same thing: for spontaneity above all, for a fellowship of the mischievous. I’d only add that matters of the spirit come before matters of the flesh.

I’ll close with a Tennyson poem. In “The Palace of Art,” an artist decides to shut himself up within the lonely vision of a higher intellect, and bids his soul build a towering palace for him where he may spend the rest of his days in contemplation. However, the soul quickly finds the isolation of the palace intolerable; and she seeks to purge her guilt instead in “a cottage in the vale.”

It’s hard to live in the Palace of Art—the advantages are so few, so unobvious. One can’t say one becomes more moral, more tolerant, more popular, more cheerful, more sexually successful, by living there. The life of the mind defends itself by surviving, or by giving a pleasure so rich yet so obscure as to be beyond analysis. It is its own ground for being.

And hardly anyone lives there forever, either. It does get tiring. Like the artist in the poem, one may decide the open country is better (or the marketplace, or the office cubicle). But a student who has been issued an invitation there, as we’ve all been, is obliged to make use of it. It’s only proper to pass at least once through its halls: to treat coffee and conversation as ends in themselves.

True, we can’t go on forever; I don’t suppose that we can talk about Truth and Beauty in the abstract always, because after all the coffee has been drunk and every half-formed opinion aired, the abstract really does need to be freshened by contact with the concrete. Life must be lived outside the Palace, in the open air with the wind blowing, where the card-house theories of undergraduates can hardly hope to stand.

But where else but the Palace can the foolishness of youth hold forth on questions that elude even the august serenity of age? Despite the futility, the extravagance, the pretentiousness of the endeavor, the Palace of Art must be purified; and it cannot be purified by the lonely aesthete shut up in his tower, but only if all mankind comes therein to dwell, even for a time.

Or so at any rate I’ve often thought, sitting in Wilbur Dining, overhearing the conversation. A hundred undergraduates are venturing a hundred opinions about Midnights and boba. TikTok, it turns out, is even more important than we’d imagined. Affirmative action is “like, good.” The broccoli is under-seasoned. The pollock is unpalatable. And so it goes.

But it would be uncharitable, even on this showing, to think them content with the laziness, the small talk, or the broccoli and the pollock. All that free interchange of idea and opinion I have called for does not exist yet; but the desire for it must be there, gestating, underneath. Sometimes I remember the young boy who ferried Johnson and Boswell to Greenwich, and reminded Johnson of Orpheus on the voyage of the Argo; and who, when asked, “What would you give, my lad, to know about the Argonauts?” — said proudly, loftily, memorably, “Sir, I would give all I have.” That boy has kindred souls at Stanford yet. We have only to call them forward.

David Neese is a junior studying physics. He is not as curmudgeonly as this article would have you think. In his free time he likes to play the piano, listen to Scriabin and read Dostoevsky. 

Ayush Majumdar is a junior studying computer science. He is just as curmudgeonly as this article would have you think. In his free time, he enjoys writing & translating fiction and reading British & Bengali literature.

Toggle Dark Mode Toggle Dark Mode
Toggle Large Font Size Toggle Font Size

Login or create an account