Stanford Report Online

Stanford Report, September 27, 2000

'A time of intense growth and exploration'

This is the prepared text of the address given by Provost John Etchemendy at at the Parent Barbecue Friday, Sept. 22.

Welcome -- again -- to Stanford and to the Stanford community. Parents play an important role at Stanford. Believe it or not -- and, trust me, there will be times this statement begs credibility -- you will remain among the most important people in your son's and daughter's lives over the next four years -- even when they assure you otherwise.

John Etchemendy

(photo L.A. Cicero)

Let me also thank you for your family's confidence in Stanford. As President Hennessy is fond of saying, those of us on the faculty are here because of the exceptional students Stanford attracts. Stanford students are bright, fun to teach and filled with wonder. Thank you for lending them to us. That they are so exceptional is due in no small part to you and to your efforts. As a father myself, I know you aren't likely to hear this from them until they are, say, 40 or so and have their own teenagers -- so let me say it now: You've done a wonderful job as parents.

When I was thinking about what to say today, I went back in the university archives and came across President Ray Lyman Wilbur's 1916 letter of advice to parents. I thought I'd share a few passages with you. He said this in his letter:

It is important that parents should cooperate with us. We particularly regret that students are often given too large an allowance of money. . . . A student's principal business is his studies. He needs enough money to buy food, lodging, simple clothes, books, stamps and the like, and to pay certain fees and dues, admission to a few entertainments and special dental and medical bills. Any money supplied beyond these simple needs means that time will be wasted in spending it.

He continued:

There is no need [for students] to go to San Francisco more than once or twice a semester, and the trip can be conveniently and cheaply made by train. There is no need to supply money for orchids for dance partners, or for taxi hire.

Now, this isn't exactly the advice I'm planning to give you today, especially since I don't think anyone gives a date orchids anymore, and in fact I'm told that the whole concept of a date is passé. And, clearly, in 1916 President Wilbur never envisioned a world with ATMs and hip-hop clubs and sushi bars. Instead, I'd like to ask your help in encouraging your son or daughter to take advantage of all that Stanford has to offer.

There is no other time in their lives when your sons and daughters will have the freedom to explore the range of intellectual opportunities we offer here. If they don't explore them here and now, it is quite possible they never will. To give you a sense of the breadth of our faculty, I went to a really large high school. There were over 500 students in my graduating class. At Stanford, there are three times as many professors as there were students in my graduating class, and each one studies something different and each one is accessible to your son or daughter.

Let me make one thing clear, however. At Stanford, students learn not just from our strong faculty. They learn from each other as well -- in the classroom, in their residence halls and over the dining room table.

The learning is often of a formal nature. But it also comes in unlikely ways at unexpected moments. And what they learn may not always be classifiable in traditional ways, because a great deal of what they learn here will be about not pre-judging other people and about how to become better human beings by listening to and learning from their peers.

That may happen at the moment when your daughter is sitting in her resident fellow's apartment with a group of her dormmates and a fellow resident -- a pre-med major who is so shy he hardly ever says a word to anyone -- sits down at the piano and plays a Chopin Polonaise with such feeling it brings tears to her eyes.

Or it may come when your son is cornered by a classmate who tells him that she wants him to audition for a play that this young woman -- who is soon to become a Marshall Scholar -- is directing about the Zoot Suit Riots in Los Angeles during the 1940s. And he discovers that he's a pretty darn good actor.

Or it may come when a basketball player, who is soon to be drafted during the first round of the NBA draft by the L.A. Lakers, invites your daughter and her friends over to his apartment at Mirrielees Hall, where he cooks them dinner and makes them homemade chocolate-chip cookies. And she rethinks some of the stereotypes she has about athletes.

Now some of you may be thinking to yourselves, "Wow, this provost guy really is laying it on thick. Does he really expect us to believe that these things are going to happen to my kid?" Well, the truth is, every one of these things did happen, and they happen all the time when you bring together the kind of students we have at Stanford. Though these specific events will never repeat themselves, I guarantee that equally remarkable exchanges between your sons and daughters will happen again and again over the next four years.

Finding intellectual mentors among accomplished faculty members, making lifelong friendships, exposure to new ideas, all these things will be hallmarks of a time of intense growth and exploration on the part of your sons and daughters. The French philosopher Jacques Derrida remarked that the university was one of the very few places this sort of exploration is allowed.

"Within the university," Derrida said, "you can study without waiting for any efficient or immediate result. You may search, just for the sake of searching, and try for the sake of trying. So there is a possibility of what I would call playing. It's perhaps the only place within society where play is possible to such an extent."

So I hope your son or daughter hasn't come to Stanford wedded to just one academic major leading inevitably to one life plan. I hope he or she finds time to "search for the sake of searching," in Derrida's words. Stanford's undergraduate program is intentionally designed to encourage them to do that, to take a range of subjects before settling on a major at the end of their sophomore year. And when they make that choice, I hope the decision is based on intellectual passion, not preconceived ideas about which majors are most practical. As a member of the Department of Philosophy, I speak from experience here. Almost every parent of a philosophy major initially thinks: "Oh my God! What are they doing? How are they going to pay the rent?"

I can imagine the discussion now: It'll take place at the kitchen or dining room table, maybe during Thanksgiving break. "Hey, Dad and Mom," your son or daughter will say nonchalantly, "I've decided that biochemistry/computer science -- whatever -- just isn't me, and so I've switched my major to . . . " -- and at this point he or she puts a spoonful of mashed potatoes in his or her mouth to muffle the sound -- "philosophy." And, quickly, images of your child handing out burgers at the local fast-food restaurant enter your mind.

Scenes like this play out every year, all across the country. Imagine how we philosophers feel. I mean, Socrates was put to death for corrupting the youth. True, we've come a long way since then, what with tenure and all that, but you never know. Still, I take comfort in knowing that the Supreme Court is unlikely to allow death by hemlock, at least not while Stephen Breyer, a 1959 graduate of Stanford's Philosophy Department, is on the bench. And, if suddenly I become an unemployed philosopher, I may amble over to Hewlett-Packard and ask Carly Fiorina, the CEO who majored at Stanford in medieval history and philosophy, for a job.

Now, I understand that I've already asked a lot of you, but I'm not quite done yet. I know that all of you are exceedingly proud of your children's accomplishments and I know, as a parent, that such accomplishments usually go hand in hand with high expectations. But in the same spirit that you allow your sons and daughters to explore, please allow them the luxury of failure on occasion. Trust me, this is one of the greatest gifts you can give them. For the first time in their lives, they will be surrounded by thousands of peers who are as bright and motivated as they are, and they will need that gift at some point in the next four years.

I heard a story recently that underscores why this is so important. At a session for freshman advisers earlier this month, one of our renowned professors of economics, John Taylor, spoke about a student in one of his Econ 1 classes who came into his office distraught after the first test because she had done so poorly. She had been a straight-A student all her life, but she was having trouble coming to terms with economics. Well, she ended up doing OK in the course, majored in economics and earned honors upon graduation. "The next time I saw her," Taylor said, "she was the assistant to the chairman of the SEC," the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Help them distinguish between disappointment and failure, because there is no doubt they will face something, sometime, over the next four years that they will choose to label as failure. That's when it will become clear to you how important you are to them. At that crucial time, it will be your reassurance of their abilities that will matter most to them.

So, I hope I've made my points. First, all of Stanford's students are talented. You made them that way. They will succeed no matter where their interests take them and no matter what major they eventually choose. And, second, an undergraduate education is not job training, nor should it be, nor can it be. Its practical value comes from teaching skills that can be broadly applied, in different settings, on different jobs and, crucially, as the demands and expectations in life and career change -- as they certainly will. What they will gain by opening themselves up to all the possibilities here is an appreciation for the exciting complexity of our world, as well as the ability to synthesize complex information, to analyze conflicting opinions using rigorous, careful reasoning, to think independently and creatively, and to express themselves with clarity, precision and persuasiveness.

In four years, they will leave as alumni of one of the finest universities in the world, if we do our jobs right. And we intend to. It will be our privilege to teach them and to learn from them. We have noble ambitions here. Our mission at Stanford is the creation and dissemination of knowledge for the benefit of all. Your children will not only benefit from that mission, they will be essential contributors to it. We hope they will accept our invitation to work closely with faculty and to become engaged in Stanford's search to know through research, as well as teaching.

I hope their accomplishments will be something you will be proud of for the rest of your lives. Thank you, again, for entrusting them to us. I hope you enjoy the rest of your stay and I hope to see all of you again in February at Parents' Weekend.