Privilege is one of those omnipresent words at Columbia—a specter that follows you to every seminar and haunts the opinion pages and comment boards of campus publications. And I think it’s really a double-edged sword. For someone like me, who grew up in a fairly homogenous town and came to such a diverse community as Columbia, the idea of privilege was definitely something I was aware of but hadn’t thought about enough, so it was good that the debate was always so ubiquitous. In my experience, privilege is generally talked about along gender lines, or racial lines, or socioeconomic lines, which are the identifiers that really differentiate our backgrounds here on campus and create our diversity. But what is less talked about, at least in my experience, is the immense amount of privilege we are all granted by going to Columbia University and eventually graduating with an Ivy League degree.
I’m sure everyone has already experienced this to some degree. I usually shy away from BuzzFeed, but there was a hilarious one that our very own opinion section graduate Rega Jha, CC ’13, wrote over the summer called “39 Unexpected Effects Of Your Ivy League Education,” with such gems as “You can’t mention the Ivy League School you attend without inadvertently sounding like a douchebag,” and “You never wear school merchandise in public.” Which seem like harmless problems, because they are the very definition of a first world problem. Who cares if you get the occasional shit from your friends from home, or you get an “Oh, look at me” reaction whenever someone asks you what school you go to.
But I feel like the problem gets more pronounced the further removed you get from graduation. It’s easy to forget sometimes that there’s a world outside of Columbia, and, surprisingly, there’s even one outside of New York City. It’s crazy to look at someone like Barack Obama, who had about as much of an unprivileged childhood as you could ask for—biracial, raised by a single parent, poor, put himself through school—but still was painted as the elitist, out-of-touch candidate against John McCain (who was raised with a silver spoon in his mouth) and even, inexplicably, to some degree of success against Mitt Romney (who was raised with a 24-Carat gold spoon studded with diamonds). And a large amount of that had to do with the fact that Obama went to Columbia for his undergraduate degree and Harvard University for his law degree.
In the real world, “Ivy League” is often thrown around as an insult, with more fairness than we’re probably comfortable with. Even though attending an Ivy League college carries with it less of an implication of wealth than does having attended one of the big-name private high schools, it carries the same, if not greater, implication of elitism. And it’s fair, because we are increasingly insulated by our education from the real world by virtue of the fact that a liberal arts education means spending our time doing things like reading Nietzsche and debating pedantic issues that have no relevance whatsoever to the majority of the world. And we get to live in a nice little constantly gentrifying bubble at $64,144 a year to do so. And then, right out of college, we get salaries two to three times greater than that of the average American with two decades of experience. And even worse, we belong to this body of insular, self-congratulating schools that claims to be only a sports league but is really a vestige of the social elitism and borderline aristocracy that has always existed in the U.S.
So as much as we debate who is more or less privileged here, and who has to check their privilege more than other people, we really have to realize that, to a large portion of the outside world, we’re all elitist assholes. And I’m not writing all of this to take away from our accomplishments—we’re past the days when Ivy Leagues were only for the wealthy, and didn’t accept women or minorities, and created the concept of college applications to keep out Jewish people. One of the reasons I applied to Columbia is that Ivy League universities are known for being far more generous with financial aid than other private colleges, such as NYU. And the financial aid and affirmative action initiatives improve every single year. We shouldn’t diminish our accomplishments of getting here, or what we do here. We just have to be aware that eventually we will have to leave the bubble, and when that day comes, we have to realize the connotation that our education holds. And really try not to reference philosophers in casual conversation.
Leo Schwartz is a Columbia College senior majoring in political science and Latin American studies. Rationalizing the Irrational runs alternate Fridays.
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