Widgets Magazine


Sense and Nonsense: Masters of Our Fate

President Hennessy ended his freshman convocation speech this year with a quote from William Ernest Henley’s 1875 poem, “Invictus,” which reads: “It matters not how strait the gate, How charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.”


His message to students was that opportunities will surround us during our time at Stanford, but we are ultimately the masters of our fates. It is for us to forge our paths and make the most of our time here.


I was interested to hear a faculty member object to President Hennessy’s final words a couple weeks ago, concerned, I think, with sending a message to incoming students that the University is solely an enabler, that it provides the fuel to speed us along our present trajectories but not the detours and pit stops that might expose alternative paths, increase our awareness and deepen our current capacities. The fear is that encouraging students to have a very strong sense of personal autonomy when it comes to our education contributes to student resentment to any type of requirements.


My immediate reaction was to think that the “masters of our fate” ship has already sailed (in fact, I’m thinking it’s probably somewhere near Antarctica right now). If ever a president could be speaking to the choir, it is in telling an incoming Stanford class made up so predominately of enterprising students that they are the masters of their fate.


And in some sense, this strong feeling of personal autonomy that stems from students’ self-motivation is our biggest strength. Indeed, real success is never merely the product of coercion; it springs from a personal drive to go beyond what others demand of us, from thinking of ourselves as agents who forge our own futures. The accompanying resentment in many students to paternalism in our education is wrapped up in the drive behind the remarkable things that students do.


Nonetheless, there really are frightening consequences to students adopting a blanket attitude of resistance to any form of educational paternalism. Our current system sometimes fails to shift trajectories, deepen capacities and open new windows in the ways students need most. As a friend once pointed out to me, there were lawyers in the Bush administration who went through both undergraduate and graduate educations at some of the most prestigious universities in the country and yet did not believe in evolution. I experienced my own surprise last year when I met a Stanford upperclassman who was majoring in biology and did not believe in macroevolution.


It is often tempting to think that these obvious failures in cultivating an earnest scientific approach to the world are the fault of education requirements (if only she’d been taught the scientific method, or been given a class on evolution, then she would understand!). For students who remain sympathetic to their classes, requirements help. But they achieve the least with just those students in whom we hope they would achieve the most. They increase the resentment that impairs deep learning and give students a chance to illustrate all the innovative ways in which we can meet requirements without meeting their aims.


For better and for worse, we students tend to think of ourselves as masters of our fate. In this context, the University’s goal should be to turn us into adventurers. To do that, students need to be guided into new waters, but also to appreciate the value in venturing afar and to know that sharks (i.e. bad grades) will not eat us on the way. Most importantly, we need a genuine thirst for new horizons. And there is little chance of instilling that in us if we are chained and rowing below deck.


Aysha decided not to extend the voyaging metaphor in this contact line. Send her your thoughts at abagchi@stanford.edu.