Opinion | Columns

Checking your Ivy League privilege

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.

To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

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Anonymous posted on

I agreed with most of the article, but what world do you live in where you can generalize Columbia graduates as getting super high paying jobs right out of college? For everyone apart from the financial-types, that's simply not true.

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Clarification posted on

He's talking about perception of the outside world. Obviously not everyone is paying full tuition too.

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Clarification posted on

He's talking about perception of the outside world. Obviously not everyone is paying full tuition too.

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Anonymous posted on

I don't know about that...the first half of the paragraph is definitely about perceptions, but I felt like he transitioned into reality in the second half. Maybe not.

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Hashtag Anon posted on

Awesome illustration!

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You voted '+1'.
Anonymous posted on

Obama didn't grow up poor. He was raised largely by his grandmother, who was a banker. He went to one of the most expensive private high schools in Hawaii. Also, he was a second-generation grad student at Harvard. I'm not saying he was a part of some ultra-elite "1%" but to say that he had "as much of an unprivileged childhood as you could ask for" is a bit absurd.

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Hippiehater posted on

Leo, do yourself a favor and drink yourself to the point of blacking out whenever you get a liberal guilt attack that impels you to write drivel like this. No, I am not going to "check" my "privilege" -- I don't give a rat's ass what the self-hating over-educated circle jerk elite thinks of me, and neither should you.

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Anon posted on

I have to agree. People have to realize that status in the real world is determined by MONEY, not by where you went to school. People could care less if you went to Harvard undergraduate and ended up in debt with an $40,000 a year job at a non-profit or in research. No amount of philosophy name-dropping will change that.

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Liv L. posted on

Thank you, Leo. For me, meditations and conversations about privilege aren't like articles written about an event that's happened a long time ago. They're not redundant because privilege is an ongoing state, and the way it manifests itself varies per person and over time. That you managed to write about it without condemning the privileged (and/or expressing shame of your own background) is important, almost as important as the fact that you wrote about privilege at all.

I'm sure other comments will have insulting statements regarding to your intentions in writing this, (and surely questioning the accuracy of some of your details) but I hope you're proud of your impulse to examine privilege. Whether I'm reading an article about privilege from the age of an all-white male student body, or from the months of Rega Jha, or from you just days ago, I feel more comfortable knowing that some Columbia students make efforts not to take this education for granted - and I like to think everyone benefits from the conscientiousness and leadership of individuals like you.

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Liv L., again posted on

Spec, I'm not sure what tone you aim to strike with the tagline "We may all be a little more privileged than we think," but I'm worried it comes across as "a little" glib. Many of us are probably much more privileged than we think - and even if that weren't the case, the tagline doesn't capture the best point of the article, which I think is that if this school really wants to prepare us for the professional world, it would be wise to foster an environment in which privilege is understood and accepted, so we know how to stay grounded in the face of and/or in deference to others' assumptions. Spec, can I suggest, "We're privileged. Let's decide how to feel about it."

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Sarina posted on

I agree with all parts of this message.

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Julian posted on

Nice piece. Now, can we stop talking about privilege and start talking about real inequality? This privilege business is all nice, but the fact remains that class inequality is growing in America and as long as the well-intentioned thinkers among us continue to worry about their little bubbles of "privilege" in a vain "progressive" guilt that basically says "damn I'm lucky" in more words, that won't mean anything to people who struggle to eat, pay the bills, and get decent education and health care in the wealthiest nation ever. So, Leo, I'm glad you're trying to depart from this little bubble of consciousness we call "Columbia" or the "Ivy League." I just hope that, when you do, you leave behind this half-assed vocabulary of progress and critique that it has armed us with.

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Liv L. posted on

Julian, have you seen this? (unrelated to Leo's article at this point) If so what did you think? Or - oopsie - am I making a mistake here encouraging you to write about your thoughts on inequality? Or is that ok, because it's totally possible to have a thorough discussion on inequality without mentioning privilege?

http://inequalityforall.com/

Support your classmates. Words make a difference, and being well meaning is far from worthless.

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DilloTank posted on

The political left is characterized by people with a set of false assumptions about the world we live in. Probably the most fundamental assumption is this; that the human dilemma is not a moral dilemma, but an economic one.

The traditional Western view is that; if people can behave morally, society will benefit, we will still face hardship, but moral behavior alleviates much of that hardship, and immoral behavior is the cause of most human suffering.

The Leftist world view is that if everyone had the same amount of money, that things would be wonderful. That inequality is the root cause of suffering.

This idea is why there is so much talk of privilege by the Left. To the left, the fact that one person has more than another is proof of some sort of injustice.

To the traditional Westerner, it is proof that not all cultures, forms of government, individual behaviors, ideas concerning economic growth, business, and production are equally valid or desirable. And that individuals have varying degrees of talent, energy, intelligence, and yes, opportunity.

The poverty issue is often misunderstood by asking the wrong question; "why are people poor?" The important question to ask is "why are people prosperous?"

Prosperity requires, security i.e safety, protection from violence, the rule of law, laws that insure fairness in business, the standardization of weights and measures was one of the first important ideas allowing economic fairness, the right to own property, to keep the fruit of your labor/business, a strong work ethic, and strong moral conviction that the family is the fundamental building block of society, a strong emphasis on education and learning, basic morality.

These things do not happen by accident, they must be fostered and are easily damaged. Without them, prosperity is impossible.

The Left does not consider this. They believe that the poor are poor because the rich are greedy. Since this is not true, Leftist societies never fail to produce poverty and immense human suffering.

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