A few weeks ago, I attended a conference at Stanford University. We finished in the late afternoon, and as I walked out into the sunlight I noticed groups of people, young and old, all streaming in the same direction. I decided to follow them. We came to a large courtyard where several thousand people were gathered in front of a stage. It was the university's 123rd freshman convocation.
Richard Shaw, dean of admission and financial aid, was at the podium, dressed in academic regalia, telling a story about an American Indian student who had gone from the reservation to Stanford and become a NASA scientist. Dean Shaw announced that the freshman class included students from 49 states—"We miss you, Arkansas"—and 66 countries.
Then he looked out across the crowd of students and parents and said, "We have made no mistakes about your admission." And, in a rising voice, "You all deserve to be here!"
The crowd burst into applause.
I wish he had said something else. Something like this:
I know this is an important day for all of you. You have spent years of your lives trying to get here. Driving into Stanford this morning must have seemed like living a long-imagined dream.
And yet, I know many of you are nagged by something. Here you are, at a moment of unambiguous success and promise, sitting in a campus that looks like an American Versailles, the very best place you could possibly be. But you can't quite let yourself enjoy it, not entirely, because part of you is wondering, "Do I really deserve to be here?"
Well, as dean of admissions, no one is more qualified to answer that question than I am. Let me tell you, definitively, so there is no confusion among us.
You do not deserve to be here. Not yet.
"Deserve" is a heavy word, freighted with a shared sense of obligation. It can be understood only in a context of ethics. It denotes merit earned from service—that's where the "serve" part comes from.
That means service to others. And no, the nonprofit you founded in high school to shelter abandoned ferrets does not count. We live in a society increasingly defined by winner-takes-all competition. You're the winners. And you won by serving yourself.
You had a lot of help, of course. That story I told about the American Indian rocket scientist is interesting because, and only because, it's unusual. Most of you came here from privileged places. It was hard to miss all of those late-model luxury cars lined up in front of the dorms this morning, disgorging your stuff. You've inherited financial and social capital that the average person can scarcely imagine.
And let me be the first to say that Stanford is no better. This was just another struggling private university until the federal government started flooding the valley around us with billions of Defense Department research dollars after World War II. This palace of learning was built by the labor of less fortunate people, as palaces always are. Our predecessors were smart and diligent and sometimes wise, but most of all they were in the right place at the right time.
So I worry about you. Fate has endowed you with gifts, and instead of becoming humble, you want reassurance that all you have was well earned.
It gets worse from here. You may have noticed that, out past the medical center and the golf course, the campus is bordered by something called Sand Hill Road. If you follow it west for a few miles, you'll come upon row after row of buildings full of money. Vast amounts of money. Even more money than we have here at Stanford. And that, believe me, is saying something.
The men in those buildings are investors, and they will trip over themselves trying to give some of their money to you. They will tell you that your idea for a smartphone app that sends a text message every time your pet ferret updates his Tumblr account is nothing less than a world-changing business plan, poised to sweep aside the tired and the old and replace it with a new generation of leaders. People with the guts and brains and vision to take on the establishment. People just like you.
They will say you deserve it, and I'm afraid you'll believe them.
It's customary during ceremonies such as these to welcome one and all to the university family. I'm not going to do that, either. Universities worthy of the name insist on integrity of meaning. The word "family" means something. You just arrived here today. You are strangers to us, and, in many ways, to yourselves.
Fortunately, you have a chance to think about yourself in a different way. Stanford is best known for extending the boundaries of human knowledge, for uncovering mysteries of science and technology, and for creating and discovering things never known before.
But there are also people here who think very seriously about other things. Human things, like ethics and obligation and desire. Some of them work in our departments of history, literature, and philosophy, while others can be found among our engineers and scientists, too. Their concerns are as old as civilization, always present, never resolved.
Talk to them. Learn from them. You have the rest of your life to create the future, but less time than you realize to create yourself.
Don't mistake my talk of service for an appeal to your selfless nature. That need you feel to deserve what you haven't earned? That is a craving that can't be filled. That kind of desire will consume you in the end. You can choose otherwise.
So I say to you, on this brilliant day, in this lovely place, that while you do not deserve to be here, you could, someday. And I hope that if Stanford accomplishes only one thing on your behalf over the next four years, it will be some small assistance in really understanding what that means.
It won't be easy, and some of you won't make it. But I believe—I have to believe—that some of you will.
When you deserve it, come back to us. Share your service with your peers and your children. Then you'll be part of our family. Then you'll truly belong.
Kevin Carey is director of the education-policy program at the New America Foundation.