Encouraging Students in a Time of Uncertainty and Existential Crisis

FSI Stanford
Nov 5 · 8 min read

In a letter to his students, Herb Lin emphasizes the power of activism, education and helping others during uncertain times—such as now.

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A February 1990 photo taken from the Voyager 1 spacecraft shows the Earth from a distance of more than 4 billion miles and about 32 degrees above the ecliptic plane. Photo: NASA

2020 has been an unprecedented year is so many ways — global pandemic, widespread racial protests, a crashing economy, wildfires on the West Coast, hurricanes on the East Coast. And Election Day, which has traditionally brought a measure of political certainty to the nation, has done nothing of the sort as of the date of this writing. We live in crazy times, and at this point, all anyone can do it is wait and let it play out — a stomach-churning outcome for students and faculty alike.

I teach Stanford’s course on Technology and National Security (MS&E 193/293) for about 200 undergraduate and graduate students. Nuclear weapons — their use, effects, military and political roles, and so on — are a central part of this course. Issues associated with nuclear weapons are existential enough, but coming on top of all of the other events of 2020, it struck some of us on the instructional staff students that we have an obligation to attend to student sensibilities at this post-Election Day moment.

I sent the following note to students enrolled in the class:

Folks –

We live in crazy times. It’s really disturbing that with all of the disruption of normal election processes, we have no idea what will happen as we move on. At this point, all we can do it is wait and let it play out — and the uncertainty of it all churns my stomach as I am sure it does for many of you as well.

But amidst these times of uncertainty, I also want to provide you with some words of encouragement on top of what James Baker, Director of the Department of Defense’s Office of Net Assessment offered in closing his guest lecture in mid-October. He offered an excerpt of a letter from John Adams to his wife Abigail:

I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Painting and Poetry, Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.

This passage powerfully makes the case that some of us — not all of us, but some of us — need to study war so that fewer in later generations will have to do so. But it also has another implication — namely that some of us should also be studying Painting and Poetry, Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, and Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine. And contemporaneously with those of us studying war today, the study of all of these other subjects and topics is valuable in its own right — because if they atrophy and wither, what is left for the military to protect?

During the Second World War, Hanna Lévy-Hass was a Yugoslavian teacher imprisoned in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany, and she kept a diary. Her entry on November 8, 1944 says:

“Our existence has something cruel, beastly about it. Everything human is reduced to zero. Bonds of friendship remain in place only by force of habit… Memories of beauty are erased; the artistic joys of the past are inconceivable in our current state. The brain is as if paralyzed, the spirit violated. The moral bruises run so deep that our entire being seems atrophied by them… No matter how hard I strive to reconstruct the slightest element of my past life, not a single human memory comes back to me… We have not died, but we are dead… they have succeeded, with their sadistic and depraved methods, in killing in us all sense of a human life in our past…”

And yet, despite those sentiments, she made another entry in her diary just 10 days later, on November 18, 1944, which contains the following:

“In spite of everything, my work with the children continues. . . . I cling desperately to every chance, however slight, to gather the children together to foster in them and in me even the slightest mental sharpness, as well as a basic feeling of human dignity. . . . I carry out this task spontaneously, even instinctively I would say, through an irresistible need in my soul — in the rare moments when I manage to awaken it — and by an irresistible need that I can clearly sense coming from the children’s souls. Because they take my lead, they get excited, they want to live, they want to rejoice, it’s stronger than them.”

If ever there was a hopeless situation, it was in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany — and even then education for the children was still important and valuable. The quest for knowledge and understanding is *in itself* a manifestation of hope and promise for a better future. We make our efforts in the classroom in the hope of that you, our students, will help to make that better future — and continue to do so long after we are gone from the scene.

If the events of Election Day make you want to become a political activist for social change, then more power to you… that’s a good and wonderful thing to pursue. Some of us *should* be political activists. But if becoming a political activist doesn’t fit your own personal circumstances, that’s OK too — we don’t all have to do that, because activism isn’t limited to the political domain.

Activism is taking action to make the world better. You don’t have to participate in a street march. You don’t have to work for a nonprofit. You don’t have to support a particular political party or movement. But you do need to pay attention to and care about the world around you, and you do need to stand up and not let others sway you or bully you or define you or silence you or convince you that incivility is ever acceptable.

Taking advantage of the opportunities for education you have at Stanford to the best of your abilities and paying careful attention to the societal context in which your education and knowledge play out is a meaningful way to lay a foundation for a world worth protecting. As dark as it is now, and I acknowledge it does seem pretty dark, it may not always be this way. If and when things change, they are likely to do so suddenly; you want to be ready for change — and your Stanford education is supposed to help you be ready.

The English philosopher G.K. Chesterton once said that “As long as matters are really hopeful, hope is a mere flattery or platitude; it is only when everything is hopeless that hope begins to be a strength at all.” And it’s important to point out that hope and heaviness of heart are independent variables. A heavy heart results from events in the past… so one can have a heavy heart today and *still* be hopeful for the future.

In February 1990, the Voyager 1 spacecraft took a picture of the Earth from a distance of more than 4 billion miles and about 32 degrees above the ecliptic plane. The image of the earth is captured in the circle, occupying about a size of about one-eighth of a pixel, caught in the center of a scattered light ray from the Sun.

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Photo: NASA

About this image, the astronomer Carl Sagan wrote

That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

In short, we have only ourselves to count on. But that’s not nothing. We have us. I don’t know what the future will bring for all of us, and we won’t know who will be President until January 21, 2021. I do know that the subject material of this course is still important — whatever you might think of what is going on today, compare that to the images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, multiply those by 10 or a hundred or a thousand, and then realize the latter is not what you are facing tonight or tomorrow. Not facing those images in a decade or a century is a job that is much more yours than mine — I’m old, most of you will outlast me, and us old folks are counting on you.

It is important not to underestimate the power of individuals to change the world — but we gain even more power if we care about and act to advance the interests of others in our communities, our nations, and our planet — in that effort, we will find ourselves not alone at all. At the very least, realize that you don’t have to carry the burdens of the world by yourself, and that we can try to help each other as we move forward. Please reach out if you feel the need to do so.

In solidarity


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Dr. Herb Lin is senior research scholar for cyber policy and security at the Center for International Security and Cooperation and Hank J. Holland Fellow in Cyber Policy and Security at the Hoover Institution, both at Stanford University. His research interests relate broadly to policy-related dimensions of cybersecurity and cyberspace, and he is particularly interested in the use of offensive operations in cyberspace as instruments of national policy and in the security dimensions of information warfare and influence operations on national security. He would like to extend thanks to Amy Zegart for many helpful inputs on this piece.

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Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies
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The Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies is Stanford’s premier research institute for international affairs. Faculty views are their own.

Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies

The Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies is Stanford’s premier research institute for global affairs.

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