Stanford: Too worldly? Too useful?

Is Stanford Too Close to Silicon Valley? asks Ken Auletta in the New Yorker.

The campus has its jocks, stoners, and poets, but what it is famous for are budding entrepreneurs, engineers, and computer aces hoping to make their fortune in one crevasse or another of Silicon Valley.

Innovation comes from myriad sources, including the bastions of East Coast learning, but Stanford has established itself as the intellectual nexus of the information economy.

A former engineering professor, Stanford President John Hennessy also was a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and serves on many corporate boards.

Stanford’s entrepreneurial culture has created a “gold-rush mentality,” writes Auletta. Both faculty and students seek “invention and fortune.”  A quarter of undergrads and a majority of graduate students are engineering majors, roughly six times the percentage at Harvard and Yale.

Some ask whether Stanford has struck the right balance between commerce and learning, between the acquisition of skills to make it and intellectual discovery for its own sake.

David Kennedy, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian who has taught at Stanford for more than forty years, credits the university with helping needy students and spawning talent in engineering and business, but he worries that many students uncritically incorporate the excesses of Silicon Valley, and that there are not nearly enough students devoted to the liberal arts and to the idea of pure learning. “The entire Bay Area is enamored with these notions of innovation, creativity, entrepreneurship, mega-success,” he says. “It’s in the air we breathe out here. It’s an atmosphere that can be toxic to the mission of the university as a place of refuge, contemplation, and investigation for its own sake.”

Gerhard Casper, the former president and now a senior fellow, thinks top research universities have become too focused on solving real-world problems rather than “the disinterested pursuit of truth.” He fears “ever greater emphasis on direct usefulness,” which might mean “even less funding of and attention to the arts and humanities.”

I don’t spend much time worrying about a university’s enthusiasm for innovation, creativity and solving real-world problems. Perhaps my husband — a former engineering prof, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and a friend of Hennessy — has influenced me. On the other hand, I once took a class from David Kennedy and my daughter spent a summer as his research assistant. And I was a liberal arts major. I learned that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” according to Shelley, but I never believed it.



About Joanne


  1. The arts and humanities have lost respect, and the interest of serious students, because they no longer focus on the best of human experience but have become excessively trivialized and politicized. Because such majors no longer demand their graduates demonstrate the ability to research a topic, organize ideas, defend a position with logic and factual support and write correctly and clearly, prospective employers often have little interest in such majors.

  2. Richard Aubrey says:

    Those interested in true learning and the disinterested pursuit of truth still have to live in houses. Which somebody has to make. Speaking metaphorically.
    They should quit complaining.
    See Kipling’s “Sons of Martha”.
    Or “Tommy”.
    If Martha’s sons, or Tommy decide to go John Galt, “t’would be an ill world for weaponless dreamers”.
    Be fun to watch, though.

  3. Stanford now costs >$50k/yr. Is it any wonder that so many students seek out majors that are valued in the marketplace? It’s all very well for tenured liberal arts professors to fret about the lack of interest in their disciplines, but I don’t hear them calling for reforms that would bring down the cost of a Stanford education…

  4. Lightly Seasoned says:

    Stanford only costs that much if you have the family income to pay it. They meet 100% of student need, regardless of major. In fact, all my students who are attending Ivy/Seven Sisters schools next year are paying very little — most of them have full rides.

    The article itself is quite a bit more nuanced than Joanne presents here — the concern is that if the humanities are further de-emphasized it will narrow the problem-solving capital students have to work with. If, that is, you believe that creativity is fostered by encounters with people working on a wide variety of other problems.

    I don’t think poets have any practical function whatsoever. That’s perfect.

    • Stanford meets “100% of need” defined by what their financial aid formula determines rather than anything that approaches reality for middle-class families. Yes, elite schools are very generous these days with their financial aid for low-income families (as they should be), but only a minority of students qualify for anything close to a free ride.

      • Lightly Seasoned says:

        Huh. Well, guess my students are just very lucky. They’re certainly not low-income.

        • But do they add to the school’s “diversity” ? That’s a very significant factor, both in their chances of admission and in the amount of aid they’re offered.

          • Lightly Seasoned says:

            No, they’re middle-class white kids from the midwest. They’ve done some very interesting things, but they’re not “diverse.”

          • Cranberry says:

            They would add to geographical diversity for colleges on the coasts.

        • I just saw that you are from the Midwest. The regional cost-of-living differences means what I consider “low-income” vs. “middle class” and what you consider those terms to mean are likely pretty different.

          • Lightly Seasoned says:

            I’m not from the MW. I just live here. This is a very affluent town and their parents are executives, doctors, etc. They even have flush toilets! Indians still give us fits sometimes, though.

  5. Ponderosa says:

    Many popular video games and Hollywood movies are inspired by history and literature –e.g. Rome, the Crusades, Dante’s Inferno. The humanities are a font of creativity. Plus, brains filled with only science and business might start to think that science and business are everything.

    • Mark Roulo says:


      You’ve made a case for studying the humanities.

      But taking college classes in them (or majoring in them) is a whole ‘nuther matter.

      Back in the day (when tuition was much cheaper and a 4-year degree in anything set you apart a bit), spending four years studying Shakespeare (or Dickins or Jane Austin or …) had much lower cost and probably an actual economic return due to the rarity of the 4-year degree.

      Today? Not so much.

      I enjoy learning about history and reading well written books. But I’d be very reluctant to take four years to do this exclusively. Especially if I had to pay $100K to $200K for the privilege.

      • Ponderosa says:

        You have a point. I do not understand why the glorious free market cannot produce a high-quality, bare-bones liberal arts college –a stable of good professors; no dorms; no gyms; no counseling services; etc.

        • Mark Roulo says:

          “I do not understand why the glorious free market cannot produce a high-quality, bare-bones liberal arts college –a stable of good professors; no dorms; no gyms; no counseling services; etc.”

          I think you want dorms … you probably can’t count on enough students living nearby.

          But … having said that, I have three answers — none of them good.

          Answer #1 is that such a liberal arts college mostly already exists! That college is St. John’s College (*NOT* St. John’s University, which has a good basketball program):


          The problem is that tuition is not cheap (about $30K/year) 🙁 I can see how they could go more bare bones and maybe get this down to $20K to $25K, but I don’t see how to get down to $10K/year.

          It may not be possible to create a St. John’s for $10K/year.

          Answer #2 is that there may not be much of a demand for this sort of thing. I’m quite convinced that the vast majority of students in college are there for a credential, not for an education. Most of the rest are there for a *practical* education … and here I include most of STEM as well as majors like economics. I’m willing to believe (sadly) that there just isn’t much demand for a broad liberal arts education … certainly not as a major (rather than additional classes taken outside another major).

          Answer #3 is that the *education* is available, and fairly cheaply, too. You just don’t get a nice piece of paper certifying your knowledge. The folks at “The Great Courses” (, formerly “The Teaching Company” offer much/most of a broad liberal arts education on DVD. The list prices are high, but they are *always* having a sale, so you can put together a pretty nice course list for not too much. Plus, libraries often carry their material. Apple’s iTunesU is another source. And people can get books on history and literature and read them on their own. What you *don’t* get is 1-on-1 interaction with a teacher. For that you’ll have to take night courses (which are quite cheap … at least near me … and sometimes taught by the same folks who teach the expensive stuff leading to a degree), and again, you’ll get an education but not a certificate.

          But these are all guesses. I don’t really know.

    • Supersub says:

      So the major result of people studying the humanities is that those same people will create imitations of the great works?

  6. Richard Aubrey says:

    Fall of ’62 when I started at Enormous State University (h/t Tank McNamara), board and room, including twenty meals a week, for a ten week class session plus registration week and finals week cost $270. Minimum wage was $1.85/hr. Figure $1.50 left after taxes or commute, and two hundred hours of min-wage work would cover a semester B&R with a little left over for cheeseburgers.
    If you worked ten hours a week during the class session, you had a hundred hours, which meant you only needed one hundred of the hours you worked during the summer. That could have been 400-600.
    Things have changed, needless to say, and the change means studying non-STEM and non-biz are a hell of a lot greater financial risk than they used to be.

    • Supersub says:

      Things have changed (from seeing my and my wife’s younger siblings go to school)-

      Many campuses have not one, but multiple fully staffed gyms for student use, complete with showers, saunas, etc.

      Each suite of rooms comes with 50+ inch HDTVs with cable and extra paid programming.

      Campuses have ridiculously high speed internet connections in the rooms and are largely covered with a WiFi cloud.

      Dining halls offer a variety of made-to-order foods, including Mongolian grills, stir-fry stations… the food is better quality than at Golden Corral.

      Oh, and newer dorms have double rooms that are more than twice the size of the doubles I had.

      Scheduled (and paid for) entertainment every weekend night – casino and poker nights, Swedish massage, movies and pizza, etc

      Wonder where all the extra room and board is going?

      • momof4 says:

        Don’t forget suite-style dorms; 4 kids, 4 bedrooms, 2 baths, living room and kitchenette.