A high-school student from New Jersey answered the Stanford University application question, “What matters to you, and why?” by simply writing “#BlackLivesMatter” 100 times, without any explanation — and he was accepted to the school.
“I didn’t think I would get admitted to Stanford at all, but it’s quite refreshing to see that they view my unapologetic activism as an asset rather than a liability,” the student wrote in an e-mail to Mic.
In his interview with Mic, Ahmed explained that #BlackLivesMatter activism is important to him because he is Muslim, and “one-fourth to one-third of the Muslim community in America are black.” He then explained why he did not feel the need to give this or any other kind of explanation in his application answer: “The insistence on an explanation is inherently dehumanizing,” Ahmed stated. “Black lives have been explicitly and implicitly told they don’t matter for centuries, and as a society — it is our responsibility to scream that black lives matter because it is not to say that all lives do not matter, but it is to say that black lives have been attacked for so long, and that we must empower through language, perspective, and action.”
Of course, it obviously is true that you should not have to explain why the lives of black people matter, and that it would be “inherently dehumanizing” for anyone to ask you to do so. But guess what? Ahmed didn’t write “black lives matter,” he wrote “#BlackLivesMatter.” He was not referring to the value of black people’s lives in the general sense; he was clearly referring to a specific political movement — and one that happens to be very controversial. In a Pew Research Center survey from last year, only 43 percent of respondents said that they support the movement, and a full third of them stated that they did not even understand what its goals were at all.
Now, Ahmed may call his refusal to explain his answer “unapologetic activism,” but here’s the thing: The entire purpose of “activism” is to enact change. That’s the goal. (If you don’t believe me, then search the word on Google; the first thing that pops up will be the definition, “the policy or action of using vigorous campaigning to bring about political or social change.”) Success in activism is not measured by how strongly you believe that you are right, it’s measured by how effectively you can convince others of your views. Bringing other people to your side is, after all, the only way to achieve the change that is activism’s goal.
Ahmed believes that he is so obviously correct that no explanation should be necessary, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is necessary. A huge segment of the population doesn’t even understand what the goals of #BlackLivesMatter even are; the fact that explanation is necessary is an objective fact. His answer was not a victory for his movement, but a missed opportunity.
Oh, and then there’s this: Not only is Ahmed a lazy activist, but he’s also a lazy question-answerer. The application did not just ask “What matters to you,” it also asked “And why?” And it did so for good reason: Being able to explain “why,” after all, is the only way to demonstrate that you truly understand what you’re talking about.
Now, I’m not taking a stand on whether or not Ahmed deserved to be accepted to Stanford, because I don’t have enough information to make that judgment. I don’t have access to his entire application, and, seeing as Stanford has refused to comment, it’s not clear how large of a role that one particular answer played in his acceptance. He does seem to have a pretty substantial resume overall — he was named one of Business Insider’s “young prodigies” last year — and it’s entirely possible that he was accepted in spite of his #BlackLivesMatter answer, and not because of it. There is simply no way for me to know. What I do know, though, is that Ahmed himself is particularly proud of that non-answer answer, and that being proud of non-answer answers is an absurd way to approach life.
Think about it: Could you imagine if Ahmed someday approaches a thesis the same way that he approached that application question? What if he just turned in one-sentence paper, believing that his point of view was so clearly correct that it was somehow above him to explain?
The fact that an assertion must be supported by evidence — as well as explanations of how the evidence supports the assertion — is something that even third graders know, and it’s not hard to understand why this standard is important. Could you imagine a world where assertions alone were enough? Courts could hand out rulings without having to explain their reasoning. Police officers could haul people off to jail without having to tell those people what they had done wrong. America’s Got Talent judges could eliminate contestants without giving them evaluations of their performances, leaving all of those aspiring comics and singers to spend their lives wondering just what they had done to turn Simon Cowell against them. The frustration we experienced as children when we were told “Because I’m your mother and I say so!” after asking “Why?” would become a way of life well into adulthood.
Assertions are nothing without evidence. This, to me, is obvious — but Ahmed’s approach to question-answering made it clear that this is not not obvious to everyone, so I took the time to explain “why” anyway.
– Katherine Timpf is a reporter for National Review
Editor’s Note: The article has been amended since its original publication.