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Orientation Week

Orientation Week
Published on Mar 1, 2024.

When I arrived at Stanford, I thought I’d meet the best and the brightest. A community of students there to live the life of the mind, driven by intellectual curiosity and the desire to solve hard problems. A new generation of forthright, independent thinkers and personalities.

That was not what I found. Instead, I watched bright, eager students turn into unquestioning drones. I watched them transform into our institutional class, gobbling up a set of attitudes and behaviors before they go on to run our banks, our media, our government.

And it began the very first week on campus. At Orientation Week.

It starts with the dress code. When we first got to campus, I saw kids in all kinds of gear. Preppy polo shirts, athleisure, even some skater gear. Standard range for what you would see in a high school. But within a couple of days, all the freshmen had somehow started wearing the same clothes. Shorts, flip-flops, and a Stanford t-shirt or sweatshirt. A lanyard with their name and photo around their neck. Another lanyard with their dorm keys somewhere in their hand.

Almost like a uniform.

They also began to change how they talk. Suddenly, everything was a superlative. Every day is "amazing". This class or that professor is "the best, ever". There's a ton of love – kids "love" the roommate they met 2 days ago ("it's like she's my soulmate!"), they "love" the dorm they just moved into ("it's, like, the best place I've ever lived"), and they "love love" Stanford ("oh my god, I can't believe we're here!").

As we got deeper into O-Week, the similarities began to seep beyond dress code and language into actual ways of thinking and believing. I had looked forward to the dorm-room debates I'd heard so much about, the exchange of ideas. But the political debate I found in the dorm had all the simplicity of groupthink.

In high school, I was on the debate team, and we'd debated liberal and conservative positions on economics, regulation, foreign relations, and more. I knew that there was a reason that smart people on both sides thought that their ideas were the better ones, and it wasn't obvious who was right. But at Stanford, that nuance wasn't there at all.

One night, I heard a bunch of students talking down the hall. I walked over and saw the door was open. Inside were 8 or so freshman, scattered on the floor and on the beds. Hanging around by the doorway, I listened for a while. They were talking about how the country could fix homelessness if we would just tax the rich and redistribute the money to the poor, and the problem was that we were not doing the "obviously right" thing.

I wasn't sure it was that clear-cut, and I decided to say so. I said it wasn't obvious that the money spent on homelessness was really helping people or solving the underlying causes. If the point was to help people "get on their own feet", I asked, is that what government spending really did, or did it keep people dependent on the state for assistance? Was this really a problem of money?

At first, no one said anything. And then everyone started talking at once. "How can you say that?" "Don't you want to help people?" "What should we do? Just let them starve?" It felt like I'd stumbled onto a hunting band, and it turned out I was the prey.

"I do want to help people, but I'm just saying that I don't know if we are really helping people this way." No one listened. A suspicion had descended in the air. Eyes became narrow when they looked at me, mouths tight and pursed. A girl sitting on the floor led the charge. "People like you are the problem. Like the Republicans, you just don't care about people."

I won't bore you with the rest of that conversation. But I was shocked at how superficial it was. There was no real engagement with ideas, and describing half the country as morally bankrupt and intellectually empty felt way too dismissive. Way too easy. It was not what I expected out of kids I thought were smart.

Later that evening, I realized why the other kids might have been so willing to show open hostility to ideas they didn't like. Before dinner, we were all herded into the common room of our dorm, where we were told we needed to participate in a community exercise. Our dorm leader, a senior, called out difficult life experiences out loud – "I've been cheated on", "I've had to deal with racism", "I've been sexually assaulted" – and kids who had that experience stepped forward. I was surprised at the rawness of it, the openness. There was clearly a good intention behind the exercise – to show each other that there is much hidden below the surface – but the forced nature of it, the administrative implementation, left me feeling similar to that dorm-room conversation. Like there's one political side that emphasizes trauma and sympathy that's clearly correct, and the other side that must be uncaring and heartless.

Still, I was wondering – why do all these smart kids become the same when they get to campus? They can clearly analyze and think, that's why they're here. And of any group of students, this one should have the most intellectual diversity, not the least. So why do kids at Stanford adopt the same dress code, the same language, and the same politics when they get to campus? Why do they become drones?

I found the answer at the USC-Stanford football game during O-Week. On the way there, I overheard a girl in my dorm telling people how she never watched sports. "You know, it's just a way to satisfy the need for violence latent in civilized society. Sports is just a replacement for war for men." Fair enough, I thought. Everyone has a right to their opinion.

When we got to the stadium, they herded us to the student-only Red Zone and gave us t-shirts to put. And suddenly I saw that same girl a couple seats away, decked in red, whoo-ing at the top of her lungs. As soon as she saw the other kids were rabid fans, she ejected her anti-sports attitude and became a diehard.

The only problem was that she didn't know how football was played or when to cheer. When the game started, I watched her throw furtive glances at other kids. When they cheered, she cheered, a half-second behind. When they booed, she booed.

By the fourth quarter, she thought she had the hang of it. But at some point Stanford fumbled the ball and she started jumping and cheering - "Whoooo!! Whoo!!!". Halfway through, she looked to her right, realized no one else was excited, and mid-stream her cheers turned to boos.

That's when it hit me. These kids had worked their entire lives to get into this world. This was their ticket to life, and the worst thing that could happen to them - the absolute worst thing – would be to lose their place in it. Because it had become their identity.

For them, it is more important to be a Stanford kid than to be whoever you were before you got to college. Just like later it would be more important to be an employee at a certain corporation or a resident of a certain city.

How do you adopt an identity that isn't your own? You copy and you imitate. You give yourself up to the world you need to be part of, dressing the way it expects you to dress, talking the way it expects you to talk, thinking the way it expects you to think.

You orient. Unquestioningly.

This is part of a series on Stanford. Hope you enjoyed!