On Usefulness and Other Nonsense

by Heather Charles, B.A. ’10 + M.A. ’12

I’ve been tremendously fortunate to have attended school with so many amazingly bright, well-educated and hard working people. This fact has become all the more glaringly obvious to me as I have gotten older. Its something you take for granted as an undergraduate and then you re-enter the world to be reminded that you are a freakish outlier. Or at least I am in my community, maybe that rings less true for others, but in any case, what I gained most intellectually from being at Stanford was from the daily and constant exposure to discourse and intellectual simulation. I am, what my boyfriend calls, classically intellectual curious, which at Stanford is a euphemism for someone who is laid back and spent finals week casually eating breakfast, casually taking finals and then causally reading appalling trash in the grass outside Meyer library. This is a trait that Stanford wants in its students, it asked specifically for intellectual curiosity in its application when I was applying.

And yet, as laid back as I was, I still possess that distinctly hard working streak that Stanford students possess. And this can lead to workaholism. In fact, it did lead to an almost blind workaholism. I also have a chronic pain condition, one that I came to Stanford with. I’ve had it all of my life. And as I found out the hard way, extreme stress, like the stress of surviving my childhood which was marred by all the statistical realities of poverty plus incredibly severe abuse, or the extreme stress of being a workaholic wrecks your body. I hit my wall this year, I got injured and then I had to stop working while I healed and while we sorted out my medical condition so we could get it back to a manageable place. I reluctantly had to take a year off, and I fought it like hell because I grew up in a house where work is considered the ultimate virtue and because I attended an institution with people who feel like they are failures if they don’t perpetually move forward.

In a way I am one of the lucky ones, I’ve watched so many friends break down emotionally over the years. I don’t know think I know anyone who hasn’t had to take some time to regain balance. I watched men and women take 21 units every quarter and drink to frightening excess every weekend. I watched beautiful and incredibly talented women battle with their own bodies for control to unhealthy degrees while trying to get into PhD programs. I’ve seen friends hide under tables and desks and cry during finals. I’ve watched brilliant minds self-medicate and develop addictions. I am disturbingly comfortable with insomnia. I have two other girlfriends who have developed serious physical problems brought on by stress. I have had to be there for people I loved deeply as they stared down the precipice that is depression and suicidal thoughts. These were all things I saw as an undergraduate. These are all things we never talk about.

One of my closest friends said something that scared me recently. A few years out of school, she is an incredibly talented artist, and yet she spends most of her day coding. She said she was relearning what she loved. She had forgotten what the whole point was anyway, she had forgotten what had made her intellectually curious. She had forgotten this because she was so driven by the need to do the “correct” thing. She did exactly was she was told to do and she excelled at it. She looked back at the art she had made as a freshman in high school, as an incredibly gifted and intellectual curious mind and found a piece of herself that she lost, and now she has to strive to get it back. In the last year her weight dropped below a hundred pounds, and she started to develop physical symptoms, and she like so many of my friends, was embarrassed by this. She felt it made her weak. But it doesn’t have to be this way, because she isn’t weak, she is human. An incredibly brilliant, beautiful, talented human.

We move without thinking, because the next step is so clear for us. There is an order and we know exactly how to jump through the hoops. We are afraid of taking risks. We spend time debating whether or not thinking and reading and creating outside of what will be most profitable is of any use to us at all. What we don’t realize is that the question: “is this useful?” is a construction. It was built before us and we rebuild it with each student who forgets who they are, who forgets what made them intellectually curious, whose passions are hiding and lurking in our past. It’s not the question we should be asking ourselves.

I am working class, I am not going to down play the importance of having a job, stability, and of earning a certain amount of comfort in life. I know how motivating that can be, as a high schooler I joked that I worked so hard because I hated government cheese so much. But I also worked hard because I loved it, I loved the intellectual engagement. And the thing is, if you went to Stanford, if you get in and complete it, you already have everything you need to get a job. You will get a job. I’ll say it again in case you are in arguing with me in your head: You will get a job. You will be fine. But if you worked to make it to Stanford and through Stanford you worked because something drove you, you got in because you were intellectually curious. And if you get a job but lose yourself you have paid too high of a price.

Fundamentally the question shouldn’t be “is this useful” because that question is too often “am I useful?” and the problem with that question is that it turns us into tools. It strips of us of our humanity. It’s important to contribute, but someone who is hardworking and capable of making it to Stanford will contribute. I didn’t go into teaching because I wanted to make sure we had useful citizens. I am not swayed by the economic arguments about investing in human capital. I went into teaching because I wanted to give kids the same opportunities I had. The most important of which is the ability to choose. Choice is our privilege. We can do whatever we want with our educations and degrees. They are things that can never be taken from us. I want kids to have the chance I did, to consciously choose how to live their life, to have options. We have a choice. We really do, anyone who tells you differently is narrow-minded. And yet we consistently see our world as constrained by a few typical pathways, we build it up in our heads that there are things we have to do. We give up our choice because we are so afraid of failing. We give up our choices because we are so afraid of being human. I am still the 17 year old kid who wrote about Hegel and Existentialism for her intellectual vitality essay. I am still that innately curious kid. And because I grew up in an environment where there were so few options I grew to have a deep love and appreciation of having choice. Many of my privileged friends feel constrained because they have never thought critically about what they are doing because they have never stopped long enough to do so.

The year I graduated was the year that much of the fallout from the financial crisis occurred. One particular trader stood out. He joked about fleecing old ladies and orphans. He and many others like him gambled and destroyed the lives of millions of people. He did what he was supposed to do. He went to elite institutions. He worked hard, he went onto Wall Street. He was highly profitable. And yet, he never connected his choices and his power with the faces of the people he was gambling over. He had no interest in the humans around him, they were tools for him to manipulate and gain from. He didn’t understand that they were human. He probably didn’t understand that he was human. There are real and scary consequences that happen when people in power, and Stanford students are an elite that will have power, don’t understand that they are human beings, and don’t value the humanity in others. The purpose of a liberal arts education as I see it is fundamentally to remind us that we are human. We are human. And that is beautiful.


Heather Charles is a Stanford Class of 2010 graduate in history, and a STEP graduate of 2012 in Social Science.  An Annenberg-Woodrow Wilson teaching fellow, she has spent her time working on educational inequality, first as one of the founding members and presidents of FLIP and then as a classroom teacher. Underneath her notoriously obnoxious and intense demeanor is a girl who loves polka dots, kittens, hanging out with children, consuming media and South Park. You can reach her at hcharles2010 at gmail dot com.

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