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Hiding Behind Reality

Hiding Behind Reality
Published on Apr 8, 2024.

I grew up worshipping colleges as intellectual paradises. A sacred place, full of prestige, where our best & brightest young minds learn humanity's trove of knowledge and wisdom, and begin their life-long work of solving our most pressing problems.

Prestige was this holy aura, a feeling of purity and excellence. Things with prestige were good, there was no question of that in my mind. They had stood the test of time.

But prestige isn't real. And the things that have prestige hide their reality behind beautiful appearances that they can buy with the money.

There was something unreal about Stanford. Something that made it feel not part of this world, but rather a mirage, or an intrusion on this one from some alternate plane. It felt like it emerged one day intact, perfect and manicured in every way. It didn't have the signs of something that fights for life, that grows organically in fits and spurts, like most other things. It felt like it was deigned from above.

It largely was. Compared to the histories of the East Coast Ivies, who grew up in the shadows of the Old World universities on which they were modeled, Stanford was born untethered from the past. It was the product of a gift from a single family, a railroad tycoon and politician who ran California like his personal fiefdom in the mid-1800s.

Leland Stanford Jr. was his son, named after the big man himself. The kids was the pale, unhealthy kind, but he was the only child. He had his heart set on going to Harvard, but in a moment of fate, he died at the age of 17 from tuberculosis.

Legend has it that his parents were grief-stricken. Besotted by thoughts of their little boy frolicking the lawns of Harvard Yard, they decided to erect a building there in his name. They travelled east and visited Harvard. They sat down with the Harvard President and had a chat. How much would it be to build a building in their dear son's name? The president quietly wrote a number on a piece of paper and slid it across the table.

When Leland Stanford saw it, he was speechless. He turned to his wife, and then back to the Harvard President. Finally, he said, "If it's only this much for a building, how much for an entire university?"

That legend, probably apocryphal (fancy word for a lie), was drilled into our heads at Stanford. In a way, it was a jibe at Harvard, like many things were, in half jest and half competition. What it captured was the destiny of Stanford as something different from its peers. An island out in California, unhindered by the past, charting new paths into the future.

It led eventually to the most corporate university in the world, but it didn't get there all at once. For the longest time, Stanford was just a regional university, a place for people on the West Coast to send their sons and daughters. It was rarely mentioned in the same breath as the other Ivies until the 1950s.

Then the Cold War happened. In a history that is hidden almost to the same degree that the legend of the founding is flaunted, Stanford raked in more money from the Department of Defense than almost any other university in America. It was basically a branch of the military-industrial complex, in the foothills behind Palo Alto.

It's a fact not known to most Stanford kids that their sunny little campus, and bright little corner of the world, is the product of a ruthless robber baron who built a fortune on the backs of indentured Chinese labor, and a military-industrial complex that infused money from the one part of the government – the military – that today they hate more than any other.

Because, damn, appearances can be deceiving.

I remember walking many times through the famous walkways lined by sandstone arches, the late afternoon sun streaming in at a slant, the heavy nectar of jasmine in the air. There were many times I stopped just to take all in. It was a paradise by the looks of it. It felt almost like a dream. I would touch the sandstone pillars, feel their rough texture against my skin, just to make sure it was real. But still, somehow, I couldn't convince myself it was. Everything felt too new, too untroubled, like it had only ever known the easy success of a destined life, and never really faced the challenges of the real world.

For me, it was too removed from the gritty reality that I knew existed behind the sunny vale. Where was the strain of striving for greatness? Where was the pain of failure on the path to success? Where were the hungry, the downtrodden, the huddled masses? It was so easy to forget that any of that had ever existed, that there were places like Trenton and Newark and Philly back home where the grit of a hard life was staring you right in the eye, daring you to blink.

I tried to tell the other students that "it doesn't feel real", that we were living in a constructed paradise, a protected bubble. They'd smile like patients a little loopy on painkillers and talk knowingly of the "Stanford Bubble". But they dismissed it, like no more than the cost of doing business, shrugging their shoulders up at it, like it was out of their hands. What was the alternative? Leave paradise?

The first time I went to a grocery store, I noticed something I hadn't see in months. Kids. There they were in the checkout lane at Safeway, and I was just staring at them. They were doing what kids do, just monkeying around, making noise, and generally causing mayhem. They were doing something I hadn't seen Stanford kids do, ever – breaking the rules.

The kids I met at Stanford were some of the most docile, rule-abiding people I have ever seen. They were the kind of people who would show up at an information seminar, collect all the brochures and flyers, go home, and actually read the damn things. Rules, for them, were the real world version of textbooks. They described how to do things the way textbooks describe the techniques to solve problems. Rules were the Right Answers for real life.

Meanwhile, I changed my major seven times. My transcript reads like the meanderings of a man lost in a library. The first year was advanced physics and intensive humanities. The second, math and a sprinkling of economics and political science. The third, a bunch of language and philosophy. And by the fourth, a slew of history classes.

The way I settled on that last major was pretty straightforward. I think I'd declared as a philosophy major then, or maybe it was still political science. Either way, it was the latest in a string that started with physics and led through math, electrical engineering, economics, political science, and philosophy. But even this, my 6th major, wasn't cutting it. I had the same problem I'd eventually had with all the others. I had taken the classes I liked, but the rest of the requirements were too boring to finish.

All the kids around me had been dutifully checking off required courses from their freshman year, for majors they'd chosen before they set foot on campus. The first year, they'd done the introductory classes. The second year, their major requirements. The third, advanced requirements and electives. By the fourth, they were chilling.

Not me. At the end of my junior year, I got an email from the Dean with strong insinuations that if I didn't settle on a major and stick with it, I probably wouldn't graduate on time. They made it sound a bit like a threat. The last thing I wanted to do was pay more money to Stanford, so I did the only thing that made sense. I sat down with a list of classes I'd already taken on one side, and the school coursebook on the other, and I found the single easiest major I could finish with all the random hodgepodge of classes I'd taken so far.

Buried in the History section was a little introductory major called History, Literature, and the Arts. I don't know who designed this major, but half the classes you could count towards it didn't even have to come from the History department. They were quite promiscuous on what they would allow. Between their rather loose definitions and my rambling interests, I had well over half the major completed already.

I was always proud of my academic journey. I kind of just let my heart take me where it wanted to go. But when I told the other Stanford kids about my meandering way through choosing a major, they said things that made no sense. They said I was "brave". "Courageous". You'd think, listening to them, that I'd just signed up for a tour of duty, or gone helicopter skiing in the Alps. What was it that they were so afraid of that they thought that something as simple as following your curiosity was brave?