America's prettiest sun-soaked research university has somehow managed to become the "Harvard of the West" without getting any of the loathing that befalls the "Harvard of the East." It's time we talk about Stanford as it is: a stuck-up temple to new plutocracy, cronyism, and greed.
There's a reason lots of shitty people refer, wryly, to having gone to school in Cambridge, or Boston, or in the case of Yalies, New Haven. Saying Harvard without saying Harvard is a smug perk of the asshole overclass, one of those rare affectations that somehow sounds like modesty. But Ivy Leaguers also dissemble out of shame: everyone sort of hates Harvard because it's a brick emblem of every inequality and obnoxiousness that pervades the US. Going to Harvard comes with slight shame, like admitting you're a supermodel, or a convicted serial strangler.
Not so at Stanford, which has overtaken Harvard as the it-school for aspiring moguls, overachievers, and various other American teens who dream of creating a hot startup and then screwing their best friend out of it. Of course: Stanford offers a tremendously good education in one of the most picturesque parcels on our planet. For an undergrad, no matter their major, it's a dreamworld.
But it's also full of all the same aristocratic pus as any other elite school: rich misogynists, snobbery, and an emphasis on striking it rich. The school is a regular source of the New Most Annoying Americans. And although plenty of other top schools enjoy cozy relationships with industry—think Johns Hopkins and the Navy, or MIT and electronics. Stanford serves industry more than academia or its students, and instead of worrying over its function as econ-bubble vocational school, it's cuddling up even deeper with corporate interests. Stanford grads not only get a top-notch learnin' time: they graduate with none of the class guilt of the Ivy League, and all the self-righteousness of California exceptionalism.
Still, as is thoroughly explained in a new Harper's piece by Rebecca Solnit, Stanford has always been American capitalism's best college friend since its 19th century founding by railroad robber barons.
Stanford exists, Solnit argues, because of crooked capitalism:
[Leland] Stanford's brother Philip is said to have gone around handing out five- dollar gold pieces to San Francisco voters during an 1863 referendum on railroad investment; Stanford himself was, conveniently, governor of California at the time, and so in 1863 California also gave $15 million in state bonds to the railroad. In The Big Four, a history of Stanford and his three business partners, Oscar Lewis wrote, "from the middle '70s to 1910 the major share of the profit of virtually every business and industry on the Coast was diverted from its normal channel into the hands of the railroad and its controlling group." Or, into the tentacles. There was no alternative to their transit networks, just as there is nowadays, for example, virtually no alternative to Google's vast and spreading information networks.
Stanford stands upon some of the worst facets of the United States—facets that aren't just a legacy for the school, but foundational to its mission today. "The old railroad barons" behind the Stanford endowment, Solnit continues, "grew rich even when they created chaotic, dysfunctional corporations that ill served the public. They didn't have to benefit us to benefit themselves." Sound familiar?
It should. The spirit of 19th century money-grabbing by dudes in top hats is reborn in their millennial bootcut-jean-and-hoodie successors, who leave Stanford with the spirit of fuck-you-pay-me Manifest Destiny beating in their chests:
Fourteen years into [our] century, it looks a lot like the nineteenth. The economic divide has widened, and the ostentatiousness of the ultra-elite is a sneer at the rising desperation of most of the rest of the human beings on earth. Democracy in the United States has been undermined by corporate power, and that loss is augmented by the loss of privacy inflicted on us by the surveillance state with help from the tech sector. Amazon is intent on bringing the publishing industry to its knees; journalism, the great watchdog of the nineteenth century, has been bled almost to death by the Internet.
We can't—and probably shouldn't!—stop kids from dreaming of Palo Alto classrooms. But if they're going to reap the perks of a landed gentry heritage, we owe it to everyone to mock them as much as we would their counterparts at Harvard. Because, fuck Harvard, and ergo, fuck Stanford.
Image by Tara Jacoby