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Stanford Report, September 24, 1997

Part II - Orientation Speech by Casper: 9/24/97

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This is the continuation of the text of President Gerhard Casper’s welcome to new students and their parents on Sept. 19, 1997

Ah, yes, that is what a university president is for! Alas, I repeat what I said earlier: "Welcome to adulthood!" You do have to make choices, and trade-offs are unavoidable. I use the term "trade-off" here in the sense of a sacrifice made in one area to obtain a benefit in another. The choices are yours. In the end, neither I nor anybody else at the university can tell you what to choose, although we impose some requirements and obviously attempt to provide guidance and advice. For instance, Stanford maintains campuses in Oxford, Paris, Berlin, Florence, Moscow, Puebla, Santiago, and Kyoto because we believe strongly that you should be exposed in depth, not merely as a tourist, to other cultures. Or, as Robert Musil, the great writer, put it: "If I want a world view then I must view the world."

Now that you are here, I cannot tell you what to choose, only that choosing is unavoidable. However, I should like to make a few suggestions about how to think about making choices.

First, not choosing is in itself a choice. In some circumstances, like not voting, that often means abdicating the choice to others. At a university, abdication is seldom possible because in many circumstances we leave you no choice but to make a choice. Not making choices at college more often means delaying a choice or scattering attention across too many activities and thus depriving yourself of the pleasure that comes from pursuing some activity with intensity and in depth. Less is often more.

Having said that, I should like to demonstrate the ambiguity that is involved in the task of making choices and urge you not to choose too early, especially a major. I recently have been reading essays on the subject of making choices by some of your predecessors. I should like to quote from two of them.

The first is from Marcella, a student who thought upon arrival she knew exactly what to do at the university.

Although I entered Stanford an undeclared major, I had relatively clear goals in mind. First Stanford, majoring in something practical like economics; then [Law School]; then practicing law until I was old enough for the White House. . . . This rigid mindset did not prepare me for college. I had already planned my classes for the next four years, without any concept of whether or not the subject material even appealed to me. This had a great deal to do with the fact that my family and I had no idea what one does at a major university.

Toward the end of her freshman year, Marcella wrote: "My stereotypical notions of success, brought on by my own ignorance, [have] faded." At that time, she was contemplating Comparative Literature.

My second quote is from Greg, whose original position was the opposite of Marcella's. Greg came without any idea what he wanted to do.

When I arrived at Stanford, my academic plans were nebulous and wide-ranging. When my dorm-mates asked me that all-encompassing question ­ "So, are you a fuzzie or a techie?" ­ I could only respond, "Yes." In high school, I loved learning more than I loved any one subject, and I knew that would make matters difficult once I arrived at a place with so many possibilities and so little time. . . . Now I'm considering a double major in International Relations and Computer Science, but I'm almost certain that I'll change again several times in the course of my undergraduate career. In the most important sense, though my goals have remained constant. I'm still committed whole-heartedly to wresting from my Stanford years every drop of experience and learning they offer me.

Unless Greg becomes that legendary figure ­ a Methuselah living for hundreds of years ­ he will not actually succeed in his endeavor, since Stanford offers too many experiences and too much learning to capture in a few years. However, if Greg were to remember the auxiliary verb "can," his plan is doable: he should be committed to wrest from Stanford every drop that it offers and that he can wrest. The bounds set by can are another reminder of the need to make some choices.

The very concept of choice suggests deliberateness, a real choice. For that you do need a foundation in learning and experience. In order to acquire that foundation, you must make one other choice: You must seize the initiative, and seek out the range of opportunities that Stanford has to offer across the entire spectrum of a full-blown university. And you must participate. Let me quote from a third Stanford student, reflecting on her freshman experience. Amy writes:

The word that comes to my mind after my first week of discussion sections at Stanford is intimidation. I felt that everyone was more intelligent than I. I thought that any input I could offer would pale in comparison to the profound statements of my classmates. I spent the first few weeks of autumn quarter trying to gather up courage to participate in discussions. Soon I realized that my insecurities were unfounded and that my lack of participation in section prevented me from forming my own ideas. I gradually became more involved in discussions and found that the more I contributed to a section the more valuable it became.

Indeed! The quality of your experience and your choices depends on your active participation in the unceasing process of inquiry.

The main conundrum you face is this: In order to make the right choices, you have to search widely, while keeping in mind that ­ measured by the quality and intensity of your experiences and the sense of balance in your lives ­ less may be more.

Finally, it behooves all of us to maintain a sense of modesty about the deliberateness of our choices. Do not worry yourselves to death about getting everything just right! There is much you can do, but, in the end, you can only do so much. The French Renaissance essayist Michel de Montaigne in his essay "On the Art of Discussion" expressed this sense of modesty forcefully. I quote: "[Even] our wisdom and deliberation for the most part follow the lead of chance. My will and my reasoning are stirred this way and that. And there are many of these movements that are directed without me. My reason is daily subject to incitements and agitations which are due to chance." This is putting it too forcefully for my taste. Chance favors the prepared mind. However, there can be no doubt that serendipity will play a role in your choices, as it certainly has in mine throughout my life.

One of the most important choices you have made in your life so far is, of course, the choice of Stanford. So, why are you at Stanford?

Thus, Stanford cannot and should not be reduced to a single defining characteristic. However, when all is told, the academic challenges offered and the quality of faculty and students are the reason for our institutional existence and for your being here.

Stanford's motto, Die Luft der Freiheit weht ("The wind of freedom blows") was chosen by David Starr Jordan, our first president, after he encountered the phrase in a biography of Ulrich von Hutten, a humanist who had lived from 1488 until 1523. In his own student days, at the height of the Renaissance, Hutten made an enthusiastic statement about the search to know. He wrote in a letter to a fellow humanist: "It is a pleasure to live. . . . Studies blossom and the minds move." I wish that you may fully experience the pleasures that come from studies blossoming and minds moving. That is why you are here.

Welcome to the Farm, class of 2001!