President’s Letter

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.

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NOV/DEC 1996

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 Gordon Chang


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