A former student of mine alerted me to an article published yesterday in The Chronicle of Higher Education with the enticing title, "Welcome, Freshmen, You Don't Deserve to Be Here."
In the article, Kevin Carey, director of education-policy at the New America Foundation, offers his critique of the 123rd freshman convocation at Stanford University delivered by Richard Shaw, Stanford's dean of admission and financial aid.
The starting point for Carey's critique is a line from early in Shaw's speech, in which Shaw tells the freshmen: "We have made no mistakes about your admission. You deserve to be here."
According to Carey, that's not true. Unsettled by Shaw's affirmation, Carey provides the text of his own ideal speech, what he would have told the freshmen. According to Carey,
I wish he had said something else. Something like this:
I know this is an important day for all of you. You have spent years of your lives trying to get here. Driving into Stanford this morning must have seemed like living a long-imagined dream.
And yet, I know many of you are nagged by something. Here you are, at a moment of unambiguous success and promise, sitting in a campus that looks like an American Versailles, the very best place you could possibly be. But you can't quite let yourself enjoy it, not entirely, because part of you is wondering, "Do I really deserve to be here?"
Well, as dean of admissions, no one is more qualified to answer that question than I am. Let me tell you, definitively, so there is no confusion among us.
You do not deserve to be here. Not yet.
Carey goes on to discuss what "deserve" means, and he reminds his imagined audience of the advantages they received but did not work for:
Most of you came here from privileged places. It was hard to miss all of those late-model luxury cars lined up in front of the dorms this morning, disgorging your stuff. You've inherited financial and social capital that the average person can scarcely imagine.
And let me be the first to say that Stanford is no better. This was just another struggling private university until the federal government started flooding the valley around us with billions of Defense Department research dollars after World War II. This palace of learning was built by the labor of less fortunate people, as palaces always are. Our predecessors were smart and diligent and sometimes wise, but most of all they were in the right place at the right time.
So I worry about you. Fate has endowed you with gifts, and instead of becoming humble, you want reassurance that all you have was well earned.
How, though, does one "deserve" Stanford? How does one deserve any institution of higher learning? Carey doesn't offer specifics. He notes the relationship between "deserve" and "serve," observing that the former "can be understood only in a context of ethics. It denotes merit earned from service—that's where the 'serve' part comes from." Carey exhorts freshmen to serve others, but in what capacity he does not say. Are we talking about the kind of service reflected in the Gospel, a ministry to those on the margins, a solidarity with the poor, sick, or lonely? Or physical labor? If not, what kind of service is the "right" service?
Carey also invites students to learn from professors outside of science and technology, from historians and philosophers and others who have studied "human things." He also suggests, without making it explicit, that students need to focus on creating themselves. But Carey leaves that idea, too, unspecified. How would Carey, I wonder, distinguish self-creation from self-absorption?
Perhaps Carey intended to leave some matters deliberately vague, and his thoughtful piece is well worth the read. But the main question remains. Granting that Stanford freshmen, like freshmen anywhere, enjoy inherited advantages (whether in intelligence, wealth, or physical aptitudes), what does it take to say that one "deserves" Stanford? Or how about Harvard? Or Princeton? Or Santa Clara or Notre Dame? What must students give or achieve to say they deserved to be part of any institution of higher education?
I know students attending great colleges who had natural advantages, but who also worked extraordinarily hard to obtain high grades and high test scores, and who also served their community. How do we weigh those efforts? It seems that when it comes to talk of who deserves what, their acts of diligence and self-denial must count for something.