I fully realize the irony of writing a piece in a Columbia publication condemning elitism. But while I have the podium, why not use it? It is easy to slip into intellectually lax assumptions, to tell ourselves that we scaled the walls of this ivory tower by our own ingenuity. But this is not the case. In so many words: We did not build that.
By now, you have surely heard about Mitt Romney’s remarks on the “47 percent,” namely, the half of the country that pays no income taxes. Romney intones he will “never convince they [the 47 percent] should take personal responsibility.” Personal responsibility. Pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps, meritocracy in action. “Who built that?” “Let’s get the government out of the way.” These are all proxies for the same idea: government robbing the individual of personal responsibility, that hallmark of hardy, American fiber, that which separates us from the slavish, lazy inhabitants of any given European welfare state.
His words, secretly recorded at a private fundraiser, have been met with widespread disdain—and rightly so. However, the smug condemnations I heard from numerous voices here at Columbia rang a little hollow. I have heard the same sentiments spoken countless times on campus. It struck me as more than a little hypocritical that so many of us quickly condemned Romney’s comments while simultaneously denigrating our counterparts studying at “lesser” institutions or not attending college at all.
The barely-concealed scorn held by many Columbians for Middle America runs rampant. There exists a feeling that those who failed to gain entry here are either lazy, stupid, or both. Paulo Freire, the great Brazilian intellectual, summarizes this attitude in the following way: “for them [the ruling class,] having more is an inalienable right, a right they acquired through their own ‘effort’ ... if others do not have more, it is because they are incompetent and lazy, and the oppressed are regarded as potential enemies who must be watched.”
To be sure, getting into Columbia wasn’t a cakewalk. However, by and large, we must accept that there were institutional factors that led to our success. The complicated intersections of race, socioeconomic status, gender, and sexuality (to name a few) all played a part. It is lazy and (I would argue) borderline racist to assume that only America’s best and brightest grace Columbia’s halls when our Office of Financial Aid deems that 50 percent of our students do not require financial assistance—a feat of financial health that few American families have reached. I am not condemning the financial aid office—rather, I am condemning the widely expressed sentiment that the prestige of the Columbia degree is achieved solely through our own industry. Each of us are a product of a system that guaranteed our success: While the labor of the individual is to be commended, we must recognize that we occupy a place of unique privilege, one that is quite simply out of reach for most of our fellow Americans.
Our democracy is a peculiar one: The head of government is also the head of state. This means that the president is the head of a partisan group with discrete political and ideological ends, while simultaneously serving as the unifying symbol of the American nation, transcending creed and dogma. Upon assuming the presidency, the officeholder must tread that fine line between political ends and the somewhat-undefined goal of representing all Americans—not just the remaining 53 percent. If Romney is unable to win the presidency, it is because he has vacated his responsibility to be president to all Americans. He will have settled for those whose alleged independence and sense of “personal responsibility” have allowed them to overcome their origins and claw their way off the welfare rolls (or those whose Puritan work ethic birthed them into privilege).
My question is simple: Are we, as Columbians, representing them? When we scowl at “state schools” and “flyover states,” aren’t we just emoting the same condescension and out-of-touch sensibilities as Romney? Columbia is an institution that perpetuates the corpus and attitudes of the ruling class and will continue to do so. But simply benefiting from institutional inequities does not give us license to pretend that those inequities do not exist.
These are the words on many commentators’ lips: “Can Romney be the president of half of America?” I emphatically argue no. The American president cannot be identified with solely the ruling class—that is, the class of people whose good fortune has spared them the quiet indignities of food stamps, unemployment payments, and coupon-cutting. In the same way, no American, particularly one with the privilege of receiving a brand-name education, can afford to sneer at the “masses,” whose “laziness” prevented them from ascending the Athenian steps.
Andrew Godinich is a Columbia College senior majoring in sociology and Portuguese studies. He is treasurer of Students for Educational Reform. Too Be Frank runs alternate Mondays.
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