On December 4th, 2013, President Obama delivered a speech attacking income inequality in the United States in an effort to herald increased attention on the issue this year. During his address, the President explained how “we have strived to deliver equal opportunity — the idea that success doesn’t depend on being born into wealth or privilege, it depends on effort and merit.” In concluding his address and describing how he plans to achieve this equal opportunity, he opined: “government can’t stand on the sidelines in our efforts”. I agree with President Obama and, to augment his national push for equality, I am advocating a series of reforms at Stanford that will transform our school into a bastion of equality and social harmony within a world of striking injustice.
First, the concept of an undergraduate major should be discarded. According to the Wall Street Journal, earning prospects by major are quite varied. An electrical engineering major can hope to earn a starting salary above $60,000 while a sociology major must settle for a starting median salary of $36,500. By forcing all Stanford students to take the same classes and learn skills in high demand, earning potential would be determined by relative success within the same set of classes. Defenders of the establishment, sensing danger in this truly revolutionary notion, may claim that Stanford students are free to choose their major and research earnings potential. But is this choice truly equal? Birth sorts children into different socioeconomic levels, each able to produce a different quality of education prior to college. A typical high school in Beverly Hills is probably of higher quality than an inner-city school plagued by gang violence. Majors such as chemistry and computer science may be intimidating for a student without previous exposure to these subjects, creating an aversion to the subject. Removing this choice in its entirety is the only certain way to remove, or at least mitigate, academic inequality at Stanford.
Second, Memorial Church should either be removed or renamed. Throughout history and in the present, religion has been used to justify inhumane acts by governments and by individuals. The Spanish Inquisition. The Crusades. Al Qaeda’s terrorist attacks. Stoning. Pacification of those doomed to poverty. Furthermore, at an institution like Stanford that prides itself on the pursuit of facts, why do university funds maintain a building named for a religion not universally adhered to? This building, complete with its murals, may make students uncomfortable, harming academic performance and reducing the GPA that appears on a student’s resume. Removing Memorial Church, or at the very least changing its name, will help promote true equality at Stanford.
Third, Stanford should offer admission to all who wish to attend. The admissions process itself is a form of social exclusion, for those denied entry are unable to take advantage of Stanford’s amazing resources. Stanford certainly has the money to significantly increase its admissions offers. Although Stanford is a private institution, it receives federal research dollars and thus should serve the public good, not exacerbate social inequality. Under the current system, some students, through no fault of their own, are at an inherent disadvantage in the admissions process. I am not referring to different levels of merit, as President Obama mentioned. Instead, an intelligent child may have wanted to work hard in school but could not afford supplies. His parents, both working two jobs, may not be able to send him to a decent high school. Although the admissions office tries to account for circumstances such as these, some students are inevitably left behind. The admissions process fosters social inequality and should be abolished.
Many of you are probably thinking that these are not good ideas, both on principle and on practicality. And you are right. The admissions process, Memorial Church (or more generally, religion), and majors form unique elements of Stanford’s culture. Fundamentally transforming these elements of Stanford in the pursuit of an abstract principle would have very severe effects on the university. Few would seriously consider my “proposals,” but they evince the logical conclusion of many ideas about equality commonly advocated here at Stanford and beyond. This is not to say that equality is a negative thing for our nation was founded on the principle of equality and a society functions better without large disparities in wealth. However, there is a major difference between recognizing these principles and seeking to fundamentally restructure society in pursuit of an abstract representation of equality. Elements of society such as inherited wealth, sports, religion, education, government, and many other facets of modern life cannot be inconsequentially torn down in pursuit of reason or equality.
Too often, well-intentioned calls for reform fail to heed the complex roots of our national character and comprehend the unique iterative process that created our current civil condition. Society is not a program that can be rewritten from scratch whenever a new abstract notion is in vogue; it is a complex and nebulous web of relationships, of obligations, of structures. Reform is not necessarily a bad thing, and in many cases it may even be desirable, but in the rush for change I worry we may sacrifice many of the bonds that hold our society together, dissolving what it means to live in America’s civil society.