Over the summer I bumped into a senior tech executive at a conference in San Francisco. Being an ardent user and a fan of the technology she works on, I introduced myself with a customary greeting: my name, university, and subject of study—computer science. To my surprise, she replied to my greeting with a chuckle and a comment along the lines of, “It’s like a trade school over there.”
Months later, the comment has stuck with me and offers some truth about the current state of academics at Stanford. Ten years ago, the New Yorker derisively called Stanford “a giant tech incubator with a football team.” Now, we’ve all but lost the football team, yet tech culture is seemingly more pervasive than ever before.
Despite recent struggles in the job market, Stanford students are diving head-first into new developments in the realm of artificial intelligence, and the university's techno-capital engine is humming along without pause. Formerly bright-eyed freshmen arrive on campus resigned to a deluge of ever more populated computer science classes (CS 161 welcomed over 700 students last spring!), chasing the subject as if its place on their schedule is a foregone conclusion.
Much of this is par for the course in Silicon Valley. Stanford’s march toward the STEM disciplines is a byproduct of its own success and Silicon Valley’s global dominance. After all, when a tech titan can knock a sitting president off his digital pulpit with the snap of a finger, it becomes acutely obvious which academic disciplines hold promising futures. No doubt, Stanford must continue to cultivate the uniquely entrepreneurial, technological, and Californian spirit that has made it among the world’s foremost academic institutions.
But Stanford is not just an engineering department, or a “tech incubator with a football team,” or even a “trade school.” This campus is brimming with opportunity in every direction, and to not look beyond the veneer of computer science is to limit oneself in the face of the incredible opportunity Stanford students have outside of the Engineering Quad. A narrow and uninvolved approach to one’s education that treats school solely as a means to employment is no education at all.
As artificial intelligence classes get larger and larger and comparative literature classes shrink in size, it's worth making note of the brilliant historians, physicists, and biologists we lose in the process. Moreover, the radical innovation Stanford is known for is a byproduct of many more academic disciplines than just computer science. Just ask interim President Saller, a classicist, whose work on the Roman Empire we can all learn from (particularly chapter three of his book The Roman Empire: Economy, Society, and Culture, titled “Government without bureaucracy”). Classes on topics ranging from Dante to string theory are here for the taking if only one reaches out to grab them.
However, despite the vast array of subjects available, public perceptions about the value of certain majors continue to oscillate. In the past year alone, the media has declared both that it is “The End of the English Major” and that “Computer Science is No Longer the Safe Major.” While the validity of each of these arguments remains to be determined, it's becoming increasingly obvious that the correct path of study for the perennially confused Stanford student is that which one enjoys.
In an age where automation is putting almost every profession at risk, the undergraduate’s prescription is to study what one loves and do it well. Delve into the rich tapestry of 2500 years of human wisdom, more accessible now than in any prior—or future—point in our lives. If we are to combat Stanford’s descent into the trades, we must do so by taking the reins of our own education and engaging at a profound level with the world-class academic institution we are surrounded by.
To the freshmen, deviation from computer science is not the violation of social mores it might appear to be. To the upperclassmen–take a class that pushes you far into uncharted scholarly territories. As for me, I’ll continue my periodic dalliance with the History Department’s major declaration form....