The Stanford Student and the Limited Imagination

A few months ago, a few friends and I watched the first launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy. Half of us were transfixed. The other half thought we were wasting our time. The difference between the two camps usually comes down to whether space exploration itself is a waste of time. The first looks to space and sees nothing, but the second looks up and sees endless possibility.

We won’t see a Martian colony anytime in the next few years, but the techies among us understood that we could in the next twenty. They understood the value of exploration for exploration’s sake, that technologies designed for life beyond Earth could just as easily revolutionize life on Earth. They had a deeper understanding of possibility itself.

The denial of technological possibility is just one form of self-limitation. The personal and political manifestations of this problem are far more dangerous. My colleague Gülin Ustabas wrote about Stanford students’ tendency to dismiss theory for practice in her piece “In Defense of Utopia.” She’s right, but we first need to face an even more fundamental problem: Stanford students in the humanities and social sciences have arbitrarily narrow definitions of the “practical.” We are all too eager to settle for small-minded incrementalism over big ideas—even when those ideas could conceivably be put into practice.

Incrementalist thought is insidious because it seems reasonable. Gradual change may be the norm, but the historical record is riddled with rupture. Revolution never seems likely. Radical change is radical precisely because it shatters the norms that constrain thought and action. Three examples:

(1) For centuries, Ireland was a colony. The actions of a few rebels in 1916 paved the way for an independence that had seemed impossible for generations.

(2) The decolonization of Tanzania left behind a postcolonial state with colonial institutions. In its place, Julius Nyerere constructed a strong Tanzanian identity around an indigenous national language. Rather than accept a British model of governance, the Tanzanian state shaped itself into something radically different and altogether its own over the course of a decade.

(3) Closer to home, in a few short years, the New Deal dramatically transformed Americans’ relationship with their government. The Civilian Conservation Corps put hundreds of thousands to work. The Works Progress Administration did the same for millions more. The Social Security Act of 1935 held a whole nation accountable for its treatment of the elderly and unemployed.

I could go on. My examples reflect my own historical interests and biases. They aren’t the best, but that’s the point: radical change is not the exception. We are all the products of histories of revolution, of long periods of political stagnation broken by decisive, radical action. It’s the denial of the possibility of the rapid change that shaped our world in the past that leaves me so worried for the future.

All three examples were also the products of decades of activism and organizing centered on coherent, radical visions. The heroes of the Easter Rising were the products of a philosophy of Irish republicanism developed over generations. The Irish Republican Brotherhood had existed for decades before the Irish Volunteers took action. In Tanzania, Nyerere benefited from years of anticolonial activism directed not just at the elimination of British rule, but also at its replacement with a uniquely Tanzanian alternative. New Dealers were similarly indebted to the bold progressive and populist thinkers who came before them. Radical change may be associated with charismatic leadership, but charismatic leaders don’t work in a vacuum.

On the left, we tend to think in terms of the next “reasonable” policy proposal. The demotion of the political to questions of policy has gone hand-in-hand with a conservatism that afflicts Stanford students on the left and the right. But why shouldn’t they be conservative? Personally, we’re rewarded for playing by the rules. Build your resume. Get that Facebook internship. A few more years with your nose to the grindstone might even get you to Bain or Capitol Hill. Too many of us are still what David Brooks called the “organization kid.” Hard work and small-mindedness pay dividends. Even our activists limit themselves; there’s a tendency to focus on single-issue organizing. Fossil Free Stanford, Stanford Sanctuary Now, Students for Justice in Palestine—all worthy causes, each focused on solving a single problem. Where is our TANU? Our People’s Party? Our Indian National Congress? Radical change is possible, but radical change needs a sweeping, radical vision.

We have access to the best resources higher education has to offer, but I would bet that most of us leave Stanford a few dreams short of where we started—even if those dreams were well within reach. While self-limitation isn’t universal, far too many of us have surrendered ourselves to a discourse that privileges the details of, say, progressive tax policy over big ideas. But if we look to the past as a guide to the future, we should know that these ideas aren’t just theoretical. They deserve your time and energy precisely because they are practical.

What is to be done?

The stakes are high. Some of us will be tasked with leading our generation in the decades to come. We deserve better than the tired debates and policy proposals of the last few decades. Radicalism doesn’t have to be impractical, and a college campus is the perfect place to push the bounds of the possible—personally and politically. That means committing to a vision, not just another platform plank. We should limit ourselves no more than absolutely necessary: history suggests there are few limits we need to accept.


Chapman Caddell

Photo: Palm Drive by Daniel Dionne

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