Stanford Today Edition: November/December, 1996 Section: President's Letter WWW: On Making Choices


On Making Choices

By Gerhard Casper

A dozen or so undergraduates and I, during an evening of milk and cookies at the house, got into a discussion of all the things there are to do at Stanford: choosing courses, taking courses, writing research papers, meeting requirements, learning a foreign language, electing a major, perhaps choosing a minor (or should it be a dual major?), attending an overseas campus, engaging in public service, hiking in the foothills, or deciding how best to train for the Olympics, what a cappella group to join, how to combine the demands of the Stanford Symphony Orchestra with the desire to co-term in electrical engineering, and on and on and on.

Finally, a student turned to me in utter exasperation: "You know, we have no time to go out on dates. You really need to do something about that!"

Ah, yes, that is what a university president is for. Alas, to this, and all our students, I can only say, "Welcome to adulthood!" Choices and trade-offs are unavoidable. I use the term trade-off here in the sense of a sacrifice made in one area to obtain a benefit in another.

At the university, students frequently are called upon to make choices. Stanford does impose requirements, and provide guidance and advice, but in the end, no one can tell a student what to choose. Still, this fall, I offered our new students a number of suggestions about how to think about making choices.

First, not choosing is in itself a choice. In some circumstances, like not voting, that means abdicating the choice to others. At a university, abdication is rarely the issue since in many circumstances universities leave their students no choice but to make a choice. At a university, not to choose more often means delaying a choice or scattering attention across too many activities and thus depriving one's self of the pleasure that comes from pursuing some activity with intensity and in depth.

Having said that, one should not choose too early. Robert Oppenheimer, the great physicist, in 1932 wrote to his younger brother, who seemed to be settling on a particular course of study: "But let me urge you with every earnestness to keep an open mind: to cultivate a disinterested and catholic interest in every intellectual discipline, and in the non-academic excellences of the world, so that you may not lose that freshness of mind from which alone the life of the mind derives, and that your choice, whatever it be, of work to do, may be a real choice, and one reasonably free." I could not agree more.

The very concept of choice suggests deliberateness, a "real choice," as Oppenheimer said. For that, one needs the foundation in learning and experience that a student gains by seizing the initiative, and seeking out the incredible range of opportunities that Stanford has to offer. The conundrum is that, while searching widely, one must keep in mind that less may be more and choose selectively,
remembering that there is much one can do but, in the end, "you can only do so much," as the saying goes.

Whatever the choice, once it is made one must participate. In an essay on her freshman experience, Stanford sophomore Amy writes:

"The word that comes to my mind after my first week of discussion sections at Stanford is intimidation. I felt that everyone was more intelligent than I. I thought that any input I could offer would pale in comparison to the profound statements of my classmates. I spent the first few weeks of autumn quarter trying to gather up courage to participate in discussions. Soon I realized that my insecurities were unfounded and that my lack of participation in section prevented me from forming my own ideas. I gradually became more involved in discussions and found the more I contributed to a section the more valuable it became."

Indeed! The quality of our experience and choices depends on active participation in the unceasing process of inquiry.

Finally, it behooves all of us to maintain a sense of modesty about the deliberateness of our choices, as the French Renaissance essayist Michel de Montaigne expressed forcefully in his famous essay "On the Art of Discussion": "[Even] our wisdom and deliberation for the most part follow the lead of chance. My will and my reasoning are stirred this way and that."

There can be no doubt that serendipity plays a role in your choices, as it certainly has in mine throughout my life. Let me restate Montaigne's point more positively by quoting the poet Goethe: "We derive great benefit from lively and frank associations with educated people. A nod, a word, a warning, encouragement, timely opposition are often capable of changing our lives."

Stanford deliberately provides students with curriculum and academic programs, and with lively and frank association with educated people. If all of this is in place, chance and choice can do their work. As somebody said to me the other day: "Chance favors the prepared mind only." ST