Do Stanford Students have Time to Think?

Originally published in the Stanford Daily as part of a column series known as Adventures in Academia that explored issues related to the Stanford University community.

Last week, I dropped my first class at Stanford, bringing myself down from twenty to my new record low of fifteen units. Since then, I have done something that I have not done since arriving at Stanford two years ago: I read a book not required for class.

I also ran for the first time since early September. I had a wonderful time considering my graduate school options, debating honors thesis topics, and had time to read the textbook for class. I even started to sleep more - almost have the average up to six hours. I have not felt so stress-free since I had a full-time job.

Shortly after, I had a conversation with a friend of mine from freshman year, a computer science major. He looked a little haggard when I ran into him, and for good reason. He was completing two problem sets, a written response paper and a take-home midterm, all for a single class. He was averaging 3-4 hours of sleep a night.

Every day does not bring such a delicious schadenfreude moment, so I talked about all the things I had been doing since dropping that one class. He responded with a line that I have now heard from three different people this week: “Danny, I wish I had time to think.”

According to people wiser than me, college is one of the most formative times in a person’s life. The openness of campus, the wealth of resources, the diversity of opinions and thought can shape the thinking of individuals for their entire lives. What happens, though, when there simply is no time to take advantage of all this school has to offer? Are problem sets really all there is to gain from a Stanford education?

I am not the only person concerned about this topic. The Faculty Senate has just approved the creation of a new commission to study undergraduate education at Stanford - the kind of all-encompassing commission that leads to big changes at a university.

Dean Bravman placed the new commission in a good context. According to Stanford’s news report, he said that there was nothing but movies and parties at night during his time as an undergrad. Now, there is intense scheduling of time well into the evening, several hours longer than in the past.

Is this the sort of education that leads to original and innovative leaders of industry and government?

When Joseph Lieberman, a distinguished senator with tremendous power and a critical vote in the Senate came to Stanford last week, students could not even be bothered to fill a couple hundred seats. The answer was the same for the six I asked to join me: “I’m just too busy.” Funny, Senator Lieberman managed to take two flights in the same day from Washington, D.C. to give that speech.

It is all a matter of priorities. As students, we choose what courses we take. We are certainly the first to blame when it comes to overloaded schedules. Taking five (sometimes six!) classes a quarter is no way to create thinking time. Indeed, the focus on wellness at this school should be better linked with this cause of stress.

Students though, can only take part of the blame. In my estimation, the main driver of this increased scheduling is the courses themselves. Bravman in his talk used introductory chemistry as an example (scheduling midterms every other week), but one can go to classes throughout the university and see that the quantity of work is inconsistent with the time needed to understand the material.

This is most clearly seen in the science and engineering tracks, which need to be extended to provide more time for conceptual knowledge to sink in. When I took honors linear algebra five years ago at my state school, I had 16 weeks to read and understand the material. Stanford students have six. It is hard to believe that even the brightest students can understand an entire subject in such a short period with three other classes to boot. I have not used linear algebra since, but I can still help others understand the material. Some of my friends here do not even remember it from spring quarter last year.

Extending the tracks will also provide professors the opportunity to teach the material in more creative ways, moving out of the rapid-fire lecture system that seems to be the hallmark of science education at Stanford.

Most of us will not be here when the commission’s recommendations take force, but there are things we can do right now to improve. I heartily endorse taking a few less units when the university does not require it. As Twain said, “never let school get in the way of your education.”