We’re likely all familiar with Mark Twain’s advice to never let your schooling get in the way of your education. At Stanford, there can be no doubt that we’re at one of the best, perhaps the best, of the universities on the planet. The education we get here is unsurpassed.
While here, something we come to learn about that education is that it is not singular. There is no question that much of our focus is pre-professional. We are aware, though, that there is more that deserves seeking out. We have some flexibility in what we study, varying by the demands of each major, and we can deepen our understanding in subjects we are already interested in or see whether other topics might also engage us. There are also our fellow students, our friends and classmates. We can have conversations about what interests us, what interests our friends, and perhaps, if we are lucky, we can have conversations about the permanent questions—questions about the human experience and about what is.
It is not always clear that Stanford has a coherent way of confronting us with these questions. Reflecting on them and living our lives in accordance with our reflections’ conclusions have long been thought essential to a liberal education. Stanford does not pretend to be a liberal arts school, but it remains part of the family of liberal universities. While it long ago gave up its core in the study of Western civilization, Stanford has not forsaken its obligation to guide us through an education that can free us to do our own thinking. Stanford just does it in a different, untraditional, and perhaps unintentional way.
Something we pick up in our time here is the value of initiative. Stanford offers us an incredible array of opportunities, but it does not seek us out and hand them to us—nor should it. Instead, we are handed a choice: whether to seek out the opportunities and take responsibility for our own education, or to continue to hope that others will give it to us. We are implicitly asked whether we believe education is something we get or something we make.
The answer is obvious if we embrace the university’s emphasis on initiative or if we accepted it before we arrived here. In seeking and making an education, we cannot rely completely on the course of study within our major, in distribution requirements, in SLE or in IHUM. Some of the work will be there, some will be in classes outside our departments, but we will learn most of our education in conversations with others and on our own.
What Stanford teaches us is that a true education is not to be found in a list of graduation requirements. In fulfilling them we may travel through way stations along the road of liberal learning, but what we learn by the end is that education consists more in continually asking and grappling with the eternal questions than in finding definite answers. We will likely change our minds many times about our life plans, our political views, and our opinions and judgments about what matters in the world and in our lives. In the process, we may gradually acquire a more realistic sense about ourselves and what is outside us. Things are no longer as clear and as easy to understand as they may once have seemed. We slowly acquire a healthy respect for complexity.
Educating ourselves is how we prepare for our work in the world and for our roles in history. The Stanford Challenge aims to graduate classes that will lead the world, but there is nothing the university can do to force us to meet that challenge. The liberal education we can make here for ourselves frees us to determine whether we should take that challenge seriously, whether we should meet that challenge. If we decide that we should, our learning suggests approaches and methods to us. More importantly, by searching on our own we keep our thinking sufficiently different from that of our friends, school, and society that it remains valuable and original, capable of originating new ideas and approaches.
It is however worth asking whether we can lead the world without first leading ourselves. Beyond and preceding history and profession, education is about preparing ourselves to live our lives. A liberal education aims chiefly at enriching and informing such decisions as choosing the direction and shape of our lives and making a wise choice in this matter. The question is, do we learn how to better live our lives while at Stanford?
When we read Plato and Aristotle, we remember that education is about finding the proper balance in the soul. Such balance makes for good order and excellence in our lives. We have certainly discovered much since antiquity, but the ancient philosophers remain with us because they speak to the eternal question of the good life. How should we live?
One first approximation at an answer may come from how we live our lives at Stanford. I am always struck by how many of us and how often we are asking, How should I live my life? What should I do? In our few short years here we have all seen friends change majors multiple times, reevaluate old decisions, reverse themselves on past opinions, and change the directions of their lives. We ourselves have changed as well. Emerson wrote of life as an ocean journey of a thousand tacks, its course appearing inevitable from far away but seeming quite the opposite to the one who lives it. Such a life is really nothing other than a life of perpetually asking the eternal questions. And all of these questions arise, as the ancient philosophers discovered, from the first question of the good life.
Taking responsibility for our own education, taking up a life of lifelong learning, is nothing other than seeking the answers to this one fundamental question and the questions that flow from it. Learning how to seek, to walk the ways of the eternal and permanent puzzles, is the most basic and most valuable education we can hope for. And while there is no class at Stanford that teaches this, we still learn how to do it while we are here. We learn some of it in our classes, to be sure—in the variety of approaches to learning, in the passion of professors, in the desire to know that we see in other students and that we discover also in ourselves. We learn even more in our conversations with our friends, as we all wrestle within ourselves and talk to one another trying to figure out how we should live. And ultimately we learn from ourselves.
It is not unfair to say Stanford emphasizes a pre-professional approach to our studies, but it would be unfair to say that it neglects our education in the study of the good life. In our time here, we all become more refined thinkers, well practiced in the art of asking the question, ‘What is the good life?’ and seeking answers. Let it be so for the rest of our lives.
Yours in searching,
Editor in Chief