rMyriad Facebook statuses broadcast Harvard's fall from grace earlier this month, gleefully echoing the Huffington Post's report that "In Dream College Rankings, Harvard University is Unseated." Apparently Stanford is a "dream school" now, topping the list.
On the surface this might seem like a point of pride, but university rankings and grandiose proclamations about Stanford's appeal worry me. Aside from its reputation as the nebulous "best," what exactly were the qualities that once made Harvard the stuff of dreams? The intellectual rigor? The kinship among students? The inspiration of a shared vision? It ought to be those kinds of things that make a school worth aspiring to, not just the feeling that matriculating means "being on top." Otherwise, does the appeal lie in social cachet? Is the school simply a name to open doors — a prop, a tool, another step on the path to success?
If we are indeed a "dream school," then I hope this "dream" is to contribute something to the world, not just to make money and get rich. It wouldn't burnish Stanford's reputation if prospective students simply sought entrée into wealth. (Through a distorted vision of the tech industry, for instance.) It begs the question: what's changed to make Stanford more attractive to applicants? Is it something about the institution itself, the surrounding Silicon Valley milieu, or the national mood?
This news lands just as computer science (CS) becomes the most popular major at Stanford, and while it's great that we are growing a corps of engineers for this country, I'm a little scared that, much as the East Coast universities of old served as finishing schools for those entering high society, Stanford could degenerate into a playground for the aspiring tech elite. (Thankfully, engineering isn't quite that easy, folks. You gotta work, and you gotta do problem sets to survive.)
At Stanford, we are open to new ideas and new ways of thinking. We strive for difference, we explore the novel, we embrace the unconventional. Innovation is in our blood, and we celebrate it — but remember, it's not a catchphrase, and it's not a gimmick. It's innovation in service to our ideals.
In the end, we want to be the place that cares for society and seeks to make a difference — an ethical university, not the school of tycoons.
What do they dream of us? I'm sure plenty of aspiring students do not think of our institution in such a mercenary way, and might have real reasons to regard Stanford as a "dream" school. Yet even the phrase "dream school" sounds so tawdry. It brings to mind prom queens and tiaras and pink frosting.
It also reeks of entitlement. For those who can afford it, dreams aren't silently wished for, internalized hopes whispered into the sky. Instead, they are conversation pieces passed ostentatiously around the dinner table, with hearty backslapping and the expectation they ought to be fulfilled.
Celebrating the dethroning of Harvard in a scramble to the top of a questionable heap reflects the kind of zero-sum thinking that motivates at least a subset of those aspirants and pretenders — a motivation that is profoundly distasteful. It's about image rather than substance, sex appeal rather than heart.
That's why this ranking doesn't feel like a victory. It might even feel emptier than the rankings of "best schools" judged by (supposedly) objective factors. Unfortunately, these Princeton Review rankings perpetuate glib answers rather than considered statements of vision. They cede principle to the masses instead of stamping down and answering: this is what we stand for. I think that's what gets me: it's a popularity contest, but is that how we want to be defined? If we know who we are, we shouldn't care what these kids or their parents think. It's not an honor to be recognized for a flimsy, throwaway statement.
Two weeks later in the Times Higher Education rankings, Harvard clambered back up the list; but again, how much do these small nudges one way or another matter? We already know we are peer institutions. Despite popular perception, we don't fight; we play together.
It's thus misguided for students and alumni to crow about "beating" Harvard. A constellation of many great institutions is far better for society — and for democracy — than one centralizing font of greatness surrounded by mediocre neighbors. My friend and fellow Stanford alum Jennifer Rabedeau pointedly observes that competition from worthy peer institutions can keep us on our toes. However, this competition must be manifested not as jostling for rankings, but in the form of real-life striving, where we seek to better ourselves and to enact our ideals. In reaching for what might seem to be unattainable, idealistic heights, the stars drift just a little nearer and the world seems a tiny bit brighter. I'm pretty sure in that sort of ecosystem, we'd actually end up collaborating with our friends from peer institutions, because we believe in the same things and seek to advance the same causes.
This weekend, Stanford is flooded with ProFros (prospective freshmen) who are here to get a glimpse of the Farm. Many of them will choose this to be their new home. More than a handful might have considered this a dream school, too.
So please, dreamers, understand what it means to join the Stanford community. It's not a golden ticket to comfort or riches, though maybe that happens now and again. It's the opportunity to be trained in skills humanistic and practical; to exercise new ways of thinking; to find compatriots to join you, hand in hand, in a lifelong mission. Or rather, a whole array of missions — some of which seek changes that won't even be realized in this lifetime, but are worthwhile nonetheless.
Becoming part of this place is to live and breathe and believe in an idea. If that is your dream, welcome to Stanford.
Postscript: I am recognizing again and again that what "going to Stanford" means is being given the privilege — oftentimes ridiculous amounts of privilege — to try something different in this world. For that, I am exceedingly grateful.