Where Optimism Blooms

Education is one way to put defeat into retreat.

January/February 2016

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Where Optimism Blooms

Welcome to 2016. How are you feeling?

A little worn down, maybe? Weary from daily reports of jihadist brutality? Yes, me too. Tired of cynical politics that divide and denigrate instead of elevating the whole? I’m with you. Even for a determined optimist, the trajectory of events in recent times puts a restraining belt on hopefulness. 

And yet . . . 

There is an antidote to the bleak perspective one might infer from the State of Things. Its origins are in classrooms and laboratories round the world, and most decidedly here on the Farm. Teaching and research are fundamentally optimistic enterprises; preparing students and creating knowledge are exercises in imagining a better future. 

At our staff retreat a few months ago we discussed a number of potential themes for a future magazine, one of which was dubbed a “good news” issue. The idea would be to assemble a range of stories about people and projects that have solved problems, helped people live better, and ever so slightly shaved down a gnarled edge on a world practiced at despair.  When we took a step back, we recognized that there is a lot of good news to report—and not in the chirpy, saccharine method that gives good news a bad name, but as a serious, purposeful document of some ways we have nudged the needle in a positive direction.

This issue has some of that.

Let’s start with what appears to be a true breakthrough on a path toward eradicating some forms of cancer. Edgar Engleman’s work suggests that our immune systems could be deployed as precision killers of cancer cells via a fancy technique you can read about here. It’s the product of more than 20 years of persistent pursuit and, we should note, serial failure. That’s how research, and medical research in particular, tends to unfold—slowly, agonizingly, moving in small increments until finally, one day, eureka! Giving up is not an option. 

Meanwhile, over at the Law School, privacy warrior Jennifer Granick is watching out for encroachments by government and others into our already compromised personal lives. Not everyone will agree with her position—the debate over safeguarding civil liberties and preserving adequate law enforcement surveillance is complicated—but Granick is performing an important service by bringing her expertise to bear on a real-world dilemma. Also, she is an exceedingly warm and engaging person, which we discovered during a photo shoot on a blustery November afternoon that required her to stand in this place and then that place and, now, back over here again. She was a pleasure to work with. 

We are surrounded by good people like this, adventurous seekers of what’s around the corner and beyond the horizon. They bolster a belief in our capacity to invent, improve, invigorate. We didn’t officially call this a “good news” issue, but there is plenty to feel good about.  

Here’s to 2016.

Kevin Cool is the executive editor of Stanford.

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