In early August, viewers of NBC’s Meet the Press witnessed a strange spectacle. The show’s guest that morning claimed that the United States’ economic recovery since the recession that began in 2008 had not been uniform. Rather, he argued, the pace of recovery was split along an income line that, for all intents and purposes, created two distinct types of economies. This is an idea that has not been emphasized enough in undergraduate education at Stanford.
The idea that there are two separate economies—one for the rich and one for the poor—is not novel in Western economic literature or political campaigning. It is an almost tautological fact that the economy and its pace of recovery from recession functions in a markedly different manner for higher income brackets than for lower ones. What made this assertion so startling on Meet the Press was that it came from Alan Greenspan, the champion of free-market economies and liberty as the greatest good. As The Atlantic astutely opined, “When the high priest of capitalism himself is declaring the growth in economic inequality a national crisis, something has gone very, very wrong.”
The Stanford experience does not, at its core, have much to say about income or about the divided nation’s expectations of the wealthy and privileged. Jane Stanford, in her address to the Class of 1901, famously asserted that the university should “qualify the students for personal success and direct usefulness in life […] in the hope and trust that [students] will become thereby of greater service to the public.” The Haas Service Center invokes this part of the foundation in its call to action. Service-learning is a well-championed cause that draws attention to the burdens and difficulties faced by the many disadvantaged in the United States.
Unfortunately, community service initiatives are not enough. Stanford, rightfully so, makes no judgment claims about the paths students choose to take with their careers. As an elite institution, it prepares its undergraduates and graduates alike for successful and, usually, lucrative job trajectories. The Graduate School of Business boasts the highest average graduate salary of any in the world, according to the Financial Times. This is not problematic; if anything, it demonstrates the immense value added by students who pass through Stanford and go on to contribute significantly to the world.
What is problematic is that the undergraduate curriculum makes little effort to show students that they are not the norm. Of course, throughout the four years of undergraduate education, there are many reminders that we live in a privileged community and that few others share our good fortune or relative success. Lacking is quantification of how relative this success is. By senior year, most Stanford students will be aware that East Palo Alto is an economically depressed community, home to people of lower income brackets than Palo Alto. What they will likely be unaware of is that the lifestyles and expectations of a significant portion of people throughout the US are similar to those of the average East Palo Alto resident. On a global level, the ways of life and reasonable expectations of most people are significantly lower.
Again, none of these assertions is particularly novel or newsworthy; it is generally accepted now that there are (and may always be) a hefty number of global poor. But Stanford should incorporate into its mission a pledge to educate students about the fact that income inequality has been rising historically. Moreover, it should teach its undergraduates why that inequality is problematic, a history of how nations and organizations have attempted to tackle poverty, and the implications of pervasive inequality on the way our world works.
Josef Stalin adeptly noted in his own pessimistic way that “the death of one is a tragedy—the death of a million is just a statistic.” For this reason, the reality of 15% of the world’s rich accounting for 80% of its income does not shock anyone. The descriptive value of statistics highlighting pervasive income inequality is limited—to truly educate students to become responsible citizens, Stanford should take it upon itself to draw attention to the normative implications of global poverty.
There has been a recent call for a class highlighting environmental issues to join the ranks of undergraduate requirements. It is just as important that a class highlighting global economic issues becomes a standard part of the Stanford curriculum. Without educating Stanford students about the widespread existence and effects of inequality, the university fails to adequately prepare its graduates to live responsibly given global economic realities.