A Lifetime of Competition Causes Stanford’s Broken Conversations

“Dialogue” falls on deaf ears when Stanford students seek to win above all else, and join like-minded communities where their correctness is not questioned.

On Thursday night, the Stanford Review published a satirical list of demands. Some people found it to be quite humorous, including members of the Review; some people found it to be quite offensive, including members of the Review. Whether you found it funny is not the point of this article. Rather, the reaction to the April Fool’s piece was a perfect example of Stanford’s inherent inability to engage in dialogue. This is not just about ideological differences; in fact, it has relatively little to do with legitimate disagreement. Stanford students struggle with dialogue because we have been consistently praised and rewarded for those times we have been most competitive, and so struggle with the idea of loss and failure. So many aspects of our lives have been turned into a competition that it has become second nature to approach a discussion as a debate: one side must win, and we must be the ones to win it.

How far back this is ingrained in us is unclear, but the foundations of sibling rivalry, trying to get attention in a class of 25 students, and even participation trophies for recreational sports all play to the idea that an award is validation for our efforts. But let us begin with high school. During fall semester of senior year, your entire academic experience turns into an attempt to prove you are better than thousands of your peers. There are only so many spots in university, and so it naturally becomes competitive. As a result, we’ve created an entire industry to rank people: SATs, ACTs, APs, IBs. We think it matters how many clubs we join and how many community service hours we complete; in all honesty, it might. There are numerous private counselors and advising websites poised and ready to help you turn four years of high school experience into an acceptance letter. College rankings have only exacerbated the problem: students can say they attend a university that is an empirical cut above the rest.

Stanford happens to be at the top of most lists, and that makes us, Stanford students, quite competitive. It’s hard not to be, when 44,000 students apply and under 5% are admitted. Our current freshman class is no exception: 96% were in the top 10% of their class, and over 70% of students earned a 700 or more on their Reading, Math, and Writing SAT. Stanford students are Olympians, published researchers, professional actors, and business owners. This isn’t an argument against testing, or an argument saying that everyone is equally deserving of attending a certain institution. But to come to Stanford, you had to be somewhat competitive, whether you wanted to be or not.

Stanford also prides itself on being a collaborative environment. As a guide, I end every tour saying that “the best part about Stanford is that, despite being academically rigorous, it’s extremely collaborative. My peers here are always willing to help me and work with me.” I want to believe that. I think we all do. But the competitive energy Stanford students once put into college applications and securing admittance does not just dissipate: it has to be funneled somewhere else. Success, once boiled down purely to admission to university, now needs to be redefined. For most, this new success comes from every piece of evidence that proves that their admissions counselor made the right decision.

Many people are familiar with the Stanford duck syndrome: calm on the outside, flailing underneath the water. Students often try to balance the two: confident about being a Stanford student, but unsure of their place at this institution. The former, the “Stanford Superiority Complex”, is hard to maintain. It requires a level of confidence that borders on cockiness; if the achievement level of Stanford is so great, and you are a part of that, then you must be at least as great yourself. But the complex is maintained from those outside of Stanford, with comments like “Oh, you must be so smart,” “Wow,” or even silence. The tone is sometimes complimentary, sometimes taunting, but always met with implicit agreement that yes, you are that smart, or no, you are not but you have to work hard enough to show that you can be because you were one of under 2,000 students chosen to be enrolled in this university.

The flipside of this superiority is the Inferiority Complex. You do not think that you belong here, and you are constantly trying to look for validation, whether that be in an academic or social setting. Every time you garner a piece of evidence that you are ‘on par with’ or ‘better than’ your peers, you might feel just a bit more confident about your place here.

The result of this is that we are psychologically programmed constantly to look for signs of success, proof that we are winning. Consequently, we become sure that we have already won. But humans are not solitary beings, so we group together. And it thus becomes very important that the people with which we affiliate ourselves are right; as a unit, we are more righteous, or rigorous, or insert adjective here, than the ‘others’.

Once we pick a group, it is hard to leave and even harder to dissent. We either have to acknowledge our poor judgement or compromise our chance of winning; thus, it becomes easier to make the ‘others’ seem even worse, to categorize them, and delegitimize them. The presence of support adds to this: while support is extremely important in life, it can also leave one unprepared. Sharing an idea in a room where everyone agrees could be just enough to convince someone that their beliefs are the unquestionable truth, and that others are necessarily wrong. On the other hand, sharing an idea that seems completely contrary to the values of a group ensures it does not receive proper critical feedback, but can easily just be dismissed as ludicrous.

Consider recruitment for summer internships or full time jobs. As recruitment moves earlier and earlier, those who secure jobs often help others in similar positions. At some level, this involves talking about their personal success in the recruitment process. However, how often do you hear someone sharing the number of resumes that did not lead to interviews, or interviews that did not lead to offers? Staffing applications for Stanford housing is no different. Many apply to staff, are excited about the interviews, but retroactively decide they did not really want to staff if they do not get the position. It is hard to admit that you really tried for something and did not get it; it is much easier to pretend that you either did not try or did not actually care.

I used to wonder why we have a problem with dialogue. I could never figure out why it was considered a breakthrough if non-negative emails about the Review appeared on certain email lists, or why some articles published in the Review used phrases that some considered offensive. I really didn’t understand the name-calling, or the severe grouping together of individuals and considering them all to be the same. But understanding the structural composure of the Stanford community explains why we think and argue as we do.

Stanford students do not know how to lose. We are collaborative but competitive, and we like to win. Changing your mind, or acknowledging error, is now deemed a loss. This has occurred partially because we expect people to know what they want to do with their lives when they are 18 years old; partially because voters now purposefully elect politicians who refuse to compromise; partially because we think being valued for our intellect means we must have the most intellectual opinions; and partially because we do not know how to effectively evaluate our own strengths and weaknesses. Being an excellent programmer does not mean you have to have an opinion on the government asking Apple to build a backdoor to the iPhone; it does not mean you cannot have a well-thought out opinion on charter school policy in Minnesota.

It is challenging, in a place where you are defined by your accomplishments, to fail to secure a summer internship, an A in a class, or a personal record in a race. But not all dialogue has to be considered in relation to an accomplishment. We do not need to continue to approach every conversation as if the necessary ending must be both sides agreeing. We do not need to walk in with preconceived value judgements on what people will think or say depending on small pieces of information previously gathered or heard. Discourse does not have to be about personal validation, but instead can be about the legitimacy of ideas. These conversations may be difficult, but they should be encouraged.

At the very least, we should expect those who enter conversations certain of their viewpoint to understand exactly how someone with the complete opposite position could have the same level of confidence. People’s opinions will always differ. But we must stop looking at dialogue as a competition, and realize that changing your mind, unexpectedly agreeing, or finding no common ground are all permissible outcomes from a conversation. More important is how people treat that conversation, and how honestly they give contradictory viewpoints a legitimate chance.

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