Thanks to the rise of conservative politics, cultural attitudes towards higher education transformed in the 1980s. Once treated as a public good that would help create better educated citizens, universities were instead seen as a private good that benefitted individual students. State and federal funding for public universities plummeted, and rising tuition proliferated student loans. Competing like rival companies, colleges engaged in an arms race to expand operations, further hiking up costs in the race to attract new students. Since 1978, the cost of college has increased, in absolute dollars, by 1120%. Seeking profitable grants and patentable inventions, colleges have slashed humanities and social sciences funding in favor of more lucrative investments in applied research.
As universities evolve into corporations, do we, as Stanford students, identify ourselves in response as consumers? Have we reduced a college education to a profit-yielding degree? Rising tuition and shrinking economic opportunity make our identification as consumers, to an extent, both tempting and inevitable. Stanford is expensive, and socioeconomic stability demands that our education delivers its financial promise.
However, consumer logic becomes dangerous when it threatens to undermine the university’s other obligations to its students. Simultaneous to the role of consumers we play is our role as scholars and citizens of the Stanford community. Though we place a premium on self-interest and profit as consumers, we also separately commit ourselves to the pursuit of knowledge as scholars, and to civic and political engagement as citizens. The consumer’s corporate logic, however, has infected all these spheres. Our university sets up the humanities for failure by defending its employability and soft skill-set, rather than espousing its commitment to pursuing truth and understanding the human condition. It abandons a rigorous liberal arts education in favor of hyper-specialization and lenient WAYS requirements. As consumer replaces citizen, Stanford students strip themselves of political responsibility. Self-interest replaces any broader obligation to community, explaining why in a year dominated by the emergence of alt-right conservatism, Antifa accusations and R&DE workers protests, political apathy among the general student body remains high.
In 1885, Leland and Jane Stanford committed their university not only to “qualify its students for personal success,” but also to promote “enlargement of the mind” and “the public welfare by exercising an influence in behalf of humanity and civilization.” Challenging the pervasive corporate logic on both administrators and students will be crucial to maintaining the integrity of our university’s purpose and function.
Challenging instrumental scholarship
The consumerist concern for profitable exchange hamstrings any sustainable defense of the humanities and social sciences. These disciplines should be understood through ideals and aims: through the inculcation of empathy through a literary character, for example, or developing a theory of justice through philosophy. Our campus culture, however, only sees value-generation in quantifiable and instrumental terms, forcing humanities majors into a corner when they try and defend their course of study. The question “what do you want to do with your degree?” implies that a Stanford education’s value can and should be quantified by a profitable return on investment. As a result, we reduce the value of a humanities education to attaining the “writing” and “critical thinking” skills necessary for lawyers and consultants. If a STEM degree gives students the technical skills to work at Google, then a humanities degree must somehow produce the communication and reasoning skills for finance and journalism.
The pervasiveness of this consumerist thinking has changed the way Stanford markets the humanities to prospective students. One NSO event on the humanities for the Class of 2020 “barely mentioned any humanities classes,” instead lecturing students “about how much money philosophy majors might expect to make in fifty years.” The political science department recently abolished its Political Theory track, significantly retooling its curriculum in response to students who “see a job at the end of their education.” Department chair Judith Goldstein admitted that the new major sought to “prepare students for a very large range of technology jobs.” Succumbing to a marketplace view of education, the political science department no longer wants students to contemplate liberty, justice, virtue, and order, instead choosing to churn out second-rate data scientists for Silicon Valley startups.
Three years into this curriculum change, have the number of political science majors increased? Hardly so. Stanford had 89 political science majors in 2015; this number changed to 90 in the ‘16-’17 school year. Though Stanford political science now treats prospective majors as employment-hungry consumers, it has confronted a difficult reality: that even if social science departments offer more courses on data science, the perceived return on investment will never match those of the applied sciences. The same logic applies for the humanities: commodifying the study of the human experience into advertised communication and writing skills not only trivializes the humanities, but is also not nearly enough to compete with a lucrative CS degree. And though humanities subjects do in some instances lend important perspectives to new technologies and public policy, it is hardly enough to justify their continued support as independent disciplines of study. For example, the “ethics in CS” movement calls upon software engineers to take an ethics class or two, not for more philosophy majors to enter the job market.
The failure of these instrumental defenses extends beyond “fuzzy” disciplines and into the pure sciences as well. Consumers see little economic value in difficult subjects like math and chemistry, and it is surely more expedient to land a software engineering internship through a Symbolic Systems degree than toil away at Lebesgue integration or quantum field theory.
If the humanities do not lead to good jobs, its defenders maintain that they still make us better people. As Anthony Kronman puts in his book Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given up on the Meaning of Life, “a college [is] above all a place for the training of character, for the nurturing of those intellectual and moral habits that together form the basis for living the best life one can.” As their peers indulge in the artificial wealth of start-up culture, Stanford fuzzes like to believe that they are committing themselves to the more timeless pursuit of meaning, turning to literature, history, and philosophy to live a principled life. Such defense, though less crassly opportunist, is still consumerist, positioning the humanities as a means to enlightenment—perhaps the greatest possible return on investment for an undergraduate education.
However, the assumption that we will emulate the action and thought portrayed in literature, philosophy, and history is dubious. Fuzzes still cheat on their partners and sell out to Goldman Sachs. Men trained in the liberal arts tradition of Oxford and Harvard have become the world’s colonial overlords, rent-seeking monopolists, and corrupt politicians. History and philosophy professors are probably not better people than their peers in the School of Engineering simply because they study great texts.
It is not the role of the humanities to save us anymore than it is their role to bring revenue to a university. We think like consumers the moment we adopt this logic, treating the humanities as merely a product to be advertised for moral self-improvement. The humanities cannot be justified if it is reduced as a means to some determinate end. Instead, they must be considered as their own good; the scholars who find fulfillment in the liberal arts should be enough to legitimize their existence. Abandoning our consumer mindset will allow us to see the humanities for what they are: simply the “cultivation and enlargement of the mind” as envisioned by Leland and Jane Stanford, serving no immediate purpose other than itself.
Studying ideas on their own terms is what ironically lends the humanities its transformative potential. History’s revolutions and transformations erupt from its ideas—ideas that refuse to be bound to the limitations of practicality.
Stanford: A Democratic Community?
A few months ago, one student caused great controversy in Kimball when he posted fliers belittling ICE immigration enforcement and deportation. Residents who found the poster disturbing and triggering—understandable sentiments given that some Stanford students are undocumented or from immigrant families—took the flier down. The student who originally posted the fliers then went to his resident dean, arguing that his fliers should stay up because of free speech protections.
For any Stanford student invested in the integrity of our community, this incident would elicit outrage, either at the fliers’ intolerance towards immigrants, or at the lack of campus free speech protections. Yet many of my peers treated the incident with disdain and even amusement, remarking that ‘activists just need to chill’ and that ‘people take politics at Stanford too seriously.’Absent Congressional compromise, the impending expiration of DACA puts dozens of Stanford students at risk and has prompted calls to turn the university into a sanctuary campus. Conservative students argue that political correctness, as evinced by the DACA debate, not only suppresses their free speech, but also contributed to Trump’s 2016 victory. Given such circumstances, how could students continue to dismiss the Kimball debacle as mere spectacle?
The identification of the student as a consumer excuses the exercise of political responsibility on campus. A consumer, unlike a citizen, views herself as an apolitical agent. She is concerned only about the utility of the product she buys, not over the moral right and wrong of her actions. For consumers, politics and government are an ambiguous “them,” a set of agents whose decisions she has no responsibility for nor any commitment to. Anti-immigrant posters or free speech violations thus cannot matter that much, because Stanford is somehow insulated from broader political forces. If Stanford is only a training ground for our future careers, so the logic goes, why should one care about politics right now? As long as our degrees’ financial value is not threatened, the Stanford administration’s policies are irrelevant concerns.
Treating Stanford as such masks its existence as a political community—one that wrestles with the same issues as American politics at large. Just as backlash against political correctness and multiculturalism, Islamophobia, electoral meddling, and the emergence of the alt-right have characterized the Trump era, so too do they define Stanford’s current political climate. This academic year, the combative Stanford College Republicans allegedly received support from Turning Point USA for candidates they secretly backed in ASSU elections and welcomed an anti-Islamic speaker who doxxed undergrads, all while increasing its membership sixfold. These connections between campus and national politics should come as no surprise. Far from being an apolitical tech utopia, Stanford is subject to the same political forces that produced our current president and revitalized the Republican Party, for better or for worse.
Hindering college campus elections of course exists on a different level than Russian interference in the Presidential election. Yet the worth of fighting for values we believe in and want for our campus community should never be measured against the magnitude of its cause. And if our current campus community mirrors our larger national community, political indifference now may very likely breed political indifference in the future. Embracing our role as citizens requires that we renew our commitment to improving the Stanford community. Whereas a consumer would solely expect a Stanford education to equip us with the skills and knowledge for marketplace success, an ethics of citizenship would recognize our obligation to, in the Founding Grant’s words, “promote the public welfare” in our immediate surroundings. This could take the form of political protest, but it could also include strengthening our media institutions, improving the vigor of our ASSU elections, and more actively formulating university policy through Nominations Committees. As citizens, we would orient our actions towards incommensurable ideals like justice, fairness, and equality, resisting the consumer logic that merely packages politics into distant careers as Senators and policy advisors. Accepting our role as citizens requires that we acknowledge that striving towards these ideals necessitates political engagement in the here and now, expressing our agency not only for our self-benefit, but for the well-being of others as well.
The origins of the liberal arts precede the modern university system and go back to the ancient world. Drawn from the teachings of thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero, as well as the Christian tradition of the Bible, Augustine, and Aquinas, the premodern liberal arts wrestled with the question: how do we make humans free? Liberty, contrary to contemporary conceptions, was then not understood as the absence of restraint, but rather as the ability to exercise restraint judiciously. Western thinkers of old feared that instinct and desire too often guided our decisions, and a liberal arts education was supposed to help citizens overcome these tendencies. Through the cultivation of virtue, the liberal arts made us free.
Amidst a burgeoning data and AI revolution, idealistic calls to return to the study of such thinkers seem anachronistic. In the 21st century, a technical education is in many ways indispensable, and it need not contravene our obligations as scholars and citizens of the Stanford community. Yet, the self-interest and profit derived from this lucrative education makes it easy for us to turn a blind eye to the founding purpose of our university—to produce not only useful workers, but also to enlarge students’ minds and empower them to promote the public welfare. Returning to the original conception of a liberal arts education may thus yield for us an invaluable kernel of truth. Today’s instincts and desires are the consumer concern for productivity and profit, and resisting such temptation requires that we embrace our roles as scholars and citizens. Though the American university now looks more and more like a corporation, it continues to remain a repository of culture, intellectual inquiry, and democratic deliberation. Yet if the last thirty years are any indication, this could quickly disappear. It is up to us to fight for a different Stanford—for a Stanford that promotes consumer, scholar, and citizen.