Ivy League students get a lot of flack for casting everyone else in a less-than-flattering light. But does that make us inherently pretentious? When you consider the usual assertions of who is and who isn’t classified as pretentious, the process of determination isn’t enough to inspire self-reflection or arouse guilty feelings. The sly intelligence of overworked students doesn’t really register as pretentious when you compare it to someone who wears a Canada Goose coat in 67-degree weather. But this assumption misses the deceptive nature of pretentiousness and speaks of a more significant problem: Hardly anyone knows when they’re guilty of it, and almost no one can identify its many forms.
What we do here, and what we did to get here, while well-intentioned, is in every way pretentious. It’s not the kind of arrogance you’re used to thinking about, the kind that imperils democracies and is entwined with snobbery and narcissistic self-certainty. It’s far more subtle than that and has roots in certain types of knowledge being better than others.
The PLATO-ARISTOTLE-DEMOSTHENES etched into the façade of Butler Library used to remind me of all the time I spent reading classics when I was in high school, never knowing that I would major in them. It was humbling for me to visually trace the lineage of my education back to the old masters when I was still unsure of how well I would do here. But somewhere along the way, my success in interpreting works like the Iliad became a pretense for the knowledge that I belonged. Not as a shaper of minds, but as someone with the power to understand that which cannot be so easily understood. It was an impressive transformation that required me to dedicate myself entirely to it. But how often do results pay homage to hard work anyways?
The quintessential Ivy League student, earnest to know all, becomes a god when barely an adult and becomes pretentious when forming ideas about what is and isn’t worth their time. For some, this starts before ever setting foot on campus, with an application that asks the prospective student to list the names of books they’ve read. Even if The Joy of Cooking spoke to them in ways a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel didn’t, which are they more likely to write down? Besides, Columbia only asked for the name.
In class, while laughing at or with Aristophanes, we practice being pretentious. The work beguiles us, simultaneously demanding our detachment from one world and our engagement with another, and soon Columbia becomes the barometer we silently measure everything (and everyone) against, especially the people who don’t go here.
We spend four years with others like us, casting wider and wider nets around our isolated selves, all the while reading books to conjure up ideas of what real people outside of Columbia are like. So why come here? In part, because the experience delivers the unusual satisfaction of knowing the world without a constant awareness of the perspectives of others. However humbling, this invites a surrender of the self. But also because, more crucially, our pretentiousness is really just apathy. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. You come here because you love learning, and somewhere out of the fray emerges a sense of self.
Yet, consider the scenario of a student outside of Morningside Heights, who might grab from their bag of conversational gambits and horrifyingly allude to something they learned from the Core—as though being an Ivy Leaguer has the irksome requirement of talking about it all the time. More likely than not, they’ll be guarded or vague or disengaged until the conversation veers in a more cerebral direction. It happens whenever I see old friends from high school. I find myself waiting for an opening to show them what I’ve learned, perhaps to redeem all the hours I’ve sacrificed reading Homer, but more likely to prove it to myself that those hours have meaning outside of Columbia. This reveals as much anxiety as it does pleasure—the worry that intellect itself wanes, and I must be constantly vigilant for signs of insouciance.
Seeking out constant enrichment, while well-intentioned, establishes that even the most casual conversations have to be worthy of our time. One could ridicule this as egoism, but it’s a sincere performance when fulfillment happens in isolation, when classes must do the job of sensitizing us to the human condition, and when time is set aside only to read masterpieces.
If this is how we are, then an outsider’s perspective may be necessary to make possible a recovery of our humanness. What may keep our humility is feeling out of place—not saying something in every conversation, or steering it to something we know. Our discomfort will become the thing that breaks down the boundary between “us” and “them.” It’s a way of remembering what the world is really like so when we leave, it doesn’t feel like the seismic shift it actually is. And if you think you’ve stayed unpretentious, it’s only because you’ve forgotten your acceptance started with somebody else’s rejection.
Joel Davis is an ancient studies major in the School of General Studies. He is the executive director of Youth to End Sexual Violence, a Nobel Prize nominee, and chairman of the International Campaign to Stop Rape, the first ever global collaboration of Nobel laureates, humanitarian experts, and NGOs to end rape in war. Follow him on Instagram at @supercoolkid212. Spotlit runs alternate Fridays.
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