I really wanted to go to this talk! Thanks for sharing what you heard. I’ve heard of Bill since freshmen year when we had to read “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” for my IHUM course (linked here: http://theamericanscholar.org/the-disadvantages-of-an-elite-education/#.VEtDydTF99Q). There were a lot of things I agreed with (the homogenizing effects of the culture at elite institutions), but almost as many things that I disagreed with (partly because he disregards the recent increased efforts of elite schools in bringing in first-gen students from low socioeconomic backgrounds and the effects it has on the student body and partly because he ignores the fact that his experience is that of an affluent, white man while for first-gens, being at an elite institution might be completely different).
However, when I first came into Stanford, I really did think that Stanford was teaching us to be sheep. You have the academic portion–lectures, then section, then midterm, then final, all for the grade. And also the dominance of upper middle class to way way way upper class students. As a first-gen, low-income student, it was a very difficult adjustment, and initially, I believed that everyone’s end goal was to make it big whether that be through fame or fortune.
But as I’ve matured and went through Stanford, I’ve realized that I’m less sheep-like than I ever was in high school. Getting anything less than an A no longer kills me. I don’t avoid classes because I think I’ll do poorly. I’m exposed to different types of thinking, and as I near the end, I’m trying to take as many different classes as possible because I’ll never be around so many different types of thinkers and scholars. I’ve also met so many people who have been motivated by things other than grades or money, and Stanford provided them the resources so that they could pursue those passions.
“Best” is also very subjective. While elite universities do strive for “diversity,” the whole student body can’t be that different. At the end of the day, everyone in our majors are taking the same classes. Stanford needs to know that its admitted students have the right foundation to take its more rigorous courses, and grades or GPA might be one of the more accurate indicators. Schools like Stanford are structured in a certain way that encourage the success of students who fulfill required qualifications. During class, you made an excellent point when you asked the high school teacher how he could justify having the Innovations class with students who are reading at a second grade level. Say you have a student like that who is brilliant in Innovations, but is still struggling with basic reading. If you put her into Stanford, how do you expect her to succeed? These classes are taught with an academic rigor (at least I think so) that relies on the expectation that people have established part of the academic foundation in high school.
I’m not sure if the solution is for Stanford to “pick” different students. I think that there may be more optimal settings for people with different types of knowledges or skill sets. An elite institution is definitely not for everyone, even those who “qualify” on paper. There may be other schools that are just way more developed in other areas of education that are more suiting. For example, while yes, we do have some of the best faculty members in all of our departments, I think some schools may allot better opportunities for undergraduate in certain departments (i.e. attention, programs, etc.).
To address your concern about picking more privileged students who have had the opportunities to engage in activities that will help them stand out (read this: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2014/10/18/poor-kids-who-do-everything-right-dont-do-better-than-rich-kids-who-do-everything-wrong/?hpid=z4), top notch universities are making it a priority to have supplement applications through programs like QuestBridge where high-performing first-gen, low-income students are able to give more color on their background, for which the typical college application doesn’t have too much space. For students like me, that’s where we were able to show what we WOULD be passionate about if we had the spare time or money. But it’s challenging for the schools as well–how can they adjust for the disparity in the quality of high school education so that first-gens don’t sink because their calculus teacher didn’t really go through a concept critical to Math 51 while all of the other middle-class students had it solidified through private tutoring? I guess I’m looking at it through the institutions point of view. A lot of good ideas are very hard to execute well.
However, what I do believe is that Stanford should make more of an effort to diversify its curriculum with courses that aren’t “sheep-like” with the student body it currently has. Have students take “Innovations”-like courses. Expose them to different classroom styles and environments (like the one we’re fortunate enough to have with Howard). Have classes where students actually INTERACT with each other. Show students from various socioeconomic classes jobs that they hadn’t ever even heard of and maybe serendipitously discover a passion for a new field (I had no clue what finance was–took me 3 years to figure it out and I found that I actually love it. One of the very, very few first-gens at the division I’m going into!). At this point in time, I think I’ve learned a lot from my time here, but a lot of those things I could’ve learned earlier (kind of why I took a fifth year–the Master’s is a bonus, too).
Anyway, sorry it turned out long, but those are my two-bit. Bill always gets me going.