Stanford’s mission is practical. It has always aimed to “promote the public welfare” and “qualify its students for personal success, and direct usefulness in life.” Our university has never been an asylum for tenured professors authoring papers read only by fellow academics. Instead, Stanford has always sought to use research and teaching to shape the world beyond El Camino Real. This mission is perhaps most obvious in our university’s reciprocal relationship with Silicon Valley: Stanford professors invest in Silicon Valley ventures, 20% of undergraduates major in computer science, and companies snap up bright, technical Stanford graduates to work on startups transforming education or developing the latest social network.
The zeitgeist at Stanford seems to be social impact. Many of us choose certain majors and activities because we feel obligated to help others. For example, one reason that I study computer science is that I believe technology often more effectively improves lives than politics or academia. Student groups like CS + Social Good and BASES also assign eager student engineers, designers, and marketers to teams that tackle projects in mental health and education.
So we want to save the world. Let’s put aside the potential arrogance of this attitude and think about why, paradoxically, it still might do more harm than good: it often leads us to try to create impact in the span of a few years rather than seek larger improvements over decades or even centuries. An analogy from economics might make this clear. Long-term increases in productivity and standards of living require capital investment. While well-timed monetary or fiscal policies might cause short-term boosts, technological progress and accumulation of capital like factories or computers drive prosperity over decades.
Similarly, for the greatest improvement over the long term, some must “invest” their intellectual capital for long-term growth. More often, though, Stanford students admire people who take short-term, public risks.Trying to be an effective policy-maker in federal government or entering the clergy is not widely considered to be an impressive career among Stanford students. It’s no longer glamorous to stay in school for a PhD in biology to work at a biotech company, despite that most of the world’s most pressing problems require specialized knowledge and multiple degrees. Even an advanced degree in artificial intelligence or other computer science theory is less admirable than a high-paying job at a startup. Our distrust for institutions and desire to “disrupt” sometimes leads to (not so) subtle condemnation of careers that take too long, require too many degrees or exams, or don’t result in measurable, concrete product or profit.
But it isn’t recent CS graduates, but doctors and science PhDs who suggest and advise on social impact projects. A geriatric physician’s experiences prescribing drugs to elderly dementia patients or predicting the effectiveness of specific surgeries allows her to suggest projects that might actually improve a patient’s deteriorating quality of life. Of course Stanford undergraduates students can implement these ideas. But in the future, they might want to generate them.
This attitude is perhaps most harmful when it illogically lead to disdain for disciplines that have shaped our world. Many disparage academia as useless. And yet, fields of inquiry that were not always practical were responsible for some of the greatest advancements in civilization. Questions once asked by philosophy, the butt of all jokes about impractical majors, are now asked by physicists, economists, and computer scientists. Adam Gottlieb points out in his book The Dream of Enlightenment that, “Any corner of [philosophy] that comes generally to be regarded as useful soon ceases to be called philosophy.” Many branches of initially theoretical mathematics were later discovered to describe physical reality or have other practical applications. Seemingly-abstract number theory allows us to securely communicate and perform transactions online through public key encryption.
Similarly, many social science questions seem “impractical.” But ultimately, economic and political theories try to improve lives by finding ways to better allocate resources and power. The intellectual inquiries of Locke, Montesquieu, and Plato laid the political foundations of this country and many others. As technology transforms our world, political and economic questions are perhaps more relevant than ever. When fighting terrorism, how should we balance transparency and freedom with privacy and security? How might technology dramatically improve the ways government is financed and structured? These questions are fundamentally philosophical and can’t be treated like another app to be coded after a round of need-finding.
Furthermore, we can’t measure everything that makes life better. In fact, seeking only measurable and immediate social impact should lead us to cut funding for art, literature, and music.. It is valid to question whether art and music are a luxury when so many still live in poverty. But it is also notable that art, music, and literature have been some of the most vivid and effective ways of representing the human experience. By contrast, using art and music for just for practical purposes has often been a characteristic of totalitarian regimes. Soviet Russia forced Dmitri Shostakovich to write political propaganda music; he encoded subtle anti-Stalinist messages nonetheless. Some say that art makes life worth living; I tend to agree.
“F*** it ship it” works at hackathons but not everywhere else. This attitude is shortsighted at best and deadly at worst, because it subtly disdains people who take a longer, slower path, studying the works of their discipline over many years to acquire the technical knowledge to make contributions. If anything, this path deserves its own praise, because its payoff is uncertain. It is hard to predict which efforts will actually change the world over many years. Economist and philosopher F.A. Hayek argued in The Constitution of Liberty that our isolated efforts may assist broader ends in ways we might never predict: “It is largely because . . . each individual’s use of his particular knowledge may serve to assist others unknown to him in achieving their ends that men as members of civilized society can pursue their individual ends so much more successfully than they could alone.”
It’s far easier to solve a smaller problem instead of chipping away at a big one. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to work on large, long, and uncertain problems. Hiring too many workers instead of investing in capital hurts economies because they don’t grow. Likewise, changing the world requires not only practical pursuits, but also those that are complex, slow, and fundamentally intellectual.