DRAFT: Remarks to Parents, Orientation 2002

By: John Etchemendy

Thursday, Sept. 19, 7-8:30 p.m., Maples Pavilion

Welcome—again—to Stanford University and to the Stanford community. I had the pleasure of addressing some of you at admit weekend last spring. I’m glad your son or daughter liked Stanford, and I’m happy you are back. I want to thank all of you for your family’s confidence in us.

Like President Wilbur and Carl Knecht, I’d like your help. I’d like to ask for two specific things today. First, I hope you will help your son or daughter succeed at Stanford by encouraging him or her to explore intellectually and to experience everything this great university has to offer. And, second, I hope you will give your son or daughter the freedom to fail. But, more on that in a moment.

First, the success. There is no other time in their lives when your sons and daughters will have the freedom to explore the range of intellectual opportunities we offer at Stanford. If they don’t explore them here and now, it is quite possible they never will. And that would be a terrible mistake. The undergraduate education they will get here is not job training, nor should it be, nor can it be. Its practical value comes from learning skills that can be broadly applied, in different settings, on different jobs and, crucially, as the demands and expectations in life and career change—as they certainly will.

In other words, I hope your son or daughter hasn’t come to Stanford wedded to just one academic major leading inevitably to one life plan. Stanford’s undergraduate program is intentionally designed to encourage students to search for the sake of searching and to learn for the sake of learning. There will be completely new and potentially intimidating experiences they can choose, like the Introduction to the Humanities course, "Citizenship," which is team-taught by former president Gerhard Casper, a constitutional scholar; my colleague John Perry of Philosophy; and Ramón Saldívar of English. The course explores citizenship as expressed by great thinkers and as applied to political systems throughout history. Students read, for instance, Mencius, Plato, Locke, and Rousseau. There will be other new experiences they can choose as well, including freshman seminars, which are small classes of no more than 16 students.

I could go on and on, but I think you get the point: There are more opportunities to explore intellectually at Stanford than any one person can possibly find time for. I hope your sons and daughters fit in as many of these experiences as they can. You need to help me convince them to explore broadly while looking for their major.

At some point—most likely the end of the sophomore year—your son or daughter will be ready to choose a major and to focus his or her education. And when he or she makes that choice, I hope the decision is based on the results of intellectual exploration and on the passion he or she has found for a particular subject, not preconceived ideas about which majors are most practical.

I know that you are all exceedingly proud of your children’s accomplishments. Such accomplishments usually go hand in hand with high expectations. But in the same spirit that you allow your sons and daughters to explore intellectually, please allow them the luxury of making mistakes—of failing on occasion. Trust me, this is one of the greatest gifts you can give them at Stanford. For the first time in their lives, they will be surrounded by thousands of peers who are as bright and motivated as they are, and they will need that gift at some point in the next four years.

There’s a saying around here that Stanford students are like ducks. They appear to be casually floating on water, soaking up the California sun. But underneath, they’re paddling like crazy. They put extraordinary pressure on themselves. It’s important for them to know that their best effort is all that we expect. The first time they experience something they consider failure is when it will become clear to you how important you are to them. At that crucial time, it will be your reassurance of their abilities that will matter most.

So, I hope I’ve made my two points. First, Stanford has much to offer your sons and daughters in terms of intellectual exploration. Encourage them to explore all the opportunities available to them. In the end, that will help them succeed, both here and after they graduate.

And second, help them understand that succeeding involves risk and, sometimes, failure. Help them distinguish, too, between disappointment and failure because there is no doubt they will face something—sometime—that they will choose to label as failure, even if it is not.

In four years, they will leave as alumni of one of the finest universities in the world if we do our jobs right. And we intend to. It will be our privilege to teach them and to learn from them. We have noble ambitions here. Our mission at Stanford is the creation and dissemination of knowledge for the benefit of all. Your children will not only benefit from that mission, they will be essential contributors to it.