Have you thought carefully about why you’re in college? Can you articulate what you want to get out of these four years? Now is an especially good time to ask these questions, because William Deresiewicz, author of a popular article on The Disadvantages of an Elite Education, will be speaking at Stanford this Tuesday, April 12th. While his thought-provoking article has a fuzzie slant, most students will see some truth in Deresiewicz’s critique of universities like Stanford.
In the meantime, if you feel like you sometimes struggle to reach your potential as a student, take a look at Cal Newport’s blog Study Hacks. Newport advocates the radical notion of a college experience centered around simplicity, and is also the author of two student advice books. In stark contrast to the mindset that academic success = more units + less sleep, he suggests taking fewer classes, performing outstandingly in them, taking on original projects that set you apart, and many other ideas. Some of the blog’s suggestions are probably best ignored, but overall it offers a ton of helpful and unique advice about college.
As you develop academically, though, it might be useful to investigate what type of student you are. In 1985, a Stanford psychiatry professor published Careerism and Intellectualism Among College Students, categorizing students into four types: Careerists, Intellectuals, Strivers and Unconnected. According to the study, careerists “remained relatively fixed in their purpose throughout college, taking courses that would reliably lead to careers…[in] business, law, medicine, or engineering,” but also described “repeated fear of failure,” “a great deal of anxiety generally,” and “an erosion of self-confidence.” Meanwhile, intellectuals (who included “many students from families of very high socioeconomic status”) were “highly involved with their professors,” and tended to major in the humanities; these students gave their college experience “high marks.” Strivers—I think my roommate is one of these—were “often interested in two or even three major fields,” yet “many spread themselves too thinly and ended up with lower grades”; still, strivers “indicated the highest level of satisfaction with their undergraduate experience” and graduated with “strongly positive feelings about college.” Finally, unconnected students, whose majors “often stemmed more from default than active choice,” typically came from “very high and very low social status but rarely from the middle class”; these students were “notably less involved in extracurricular activities” and had the lowest level of satisfaction with their college experience. While some of these findings may strike you as debatable, it’s an interesting framework—for more context, check out this related story, which describes how Stanford students change after graduation.
So far, though, we’ve avoided the most basic questions: Why do we even go to school in the first place? And what does it mean to go to Stanford? I once asked two professors what they saw as the purpose of higher education. They answered, “Socialization—and learning how to think.” Following that logic, they advised me to seek out professors who did the best job of teaching students how to think. Since there was no list of the “best” professors at Stanford (although there was a list circulating of the “best” classes), I tried to create one. While my attempt was not nearly as successful as initiatives like Robin Thomas’s Make Stanford Better project, I still see the potential for an organized list of excellent teachers to supplement what we read on CourseRank or hear from our friends about classes and professors.
But let’s tackle the most basic question of all: Why go to school? First, it’s important to recognize that while education, performed by teachers and learners, has always been around, mass schooling is actually a recent development which quickly spread around the world; schooling has not always been a big part of human life. However, you may also have seen current statistics which indicate that the more degrees a person attains, the more money they are predicted to earn during their lifetime. Surely this is a big motivation for many people who go to school. Cynics might go so far as to claim that the only purpose of college is to get a credential (i.e., a degree), regardless of whether any content is actually learned or not. After all, in ten years we will have forgotten much of what we study here, and moreover, many important things are not even taught in college, as Stanford alum Susan Su points out in Stuff I Never Learned at Stanford. In light of these observations, some might view time at college—specifically, time at Stanford—as an opportunity to network with future leaders, or to explore areas (such as entrepreneurship and computer science) in which the university is advantaged by its Silicon Valley location.
Regardless, in trying to understand what it means to go to Stanford we need to acknowledge several points. First, going to Stanford does not mean that we’re geniuses. People end up at Stanford for a variety of reasons, which do not necessarily include being smarter than people who do not go to Stanford. Second, going to Stanford is not a promise that we’ll become rich and famous. When you consider how few people in the world achieve fame (and how many Stanford alumni are churned out each year), a more sensible plan is to strive to be influential, not famous—in other words, try to change the world, but don’t worry too much about the recognition itself. Viewing life from this perspective, even small actions, like raising happy and productive children, can be influential. Third, we are lucky to study in the United States, a country whose top universities dominate globally (see the U.S. News & World Report’s ranking of the World’s Best Universities as well as China’s Academic Ranking of World Universities). Going to Stanford is not a guarantee of success; it’s what you make of it. At the end of the day, though, our opportunity here is huge.
Before I came to Stanford, I took a year off and wrote an article entitled Why I’m Not In College. Now that I’m a student again, I’m fascinated by thinking and reading about how to get the most out of the college experience. And while the blogs and articles in this post don’t provide all the answers, they’re a great place to start.