More often than I’d like to admit, I think of the day I received my acceptance to Barnard. As I tried to finish my math homework that night, to tell my parents what I wanted for dinner, and to help my sister do her hair, everything condensed into a solid mantra of “I’m in I’m in I’m in I’m in I’m in.”
Sometimes I stare at people on this campus and try to imagine what their “I’m in” moment looked like. I turn the population of my 100-person lecture hall into a small emporium of Kodak moments: I wonder who they told first. I wonder if their parents were home, or if they instead texted a splotchy-faced selfie that communicated everything. I wonder if their “I’m in” was one of many joyful announcements they received about college, or the only one they got. I wonder about the new first-years that will sit in this room a few months from now, and if they’ll feel the same awe that sometimes strikes me.
Mostly I wonder if they, too, had the distinct feeling of being knighted—or, to be more appropriate to Columbia, crowned. Years of standardized test prep and glossy college brochures will have you ultimately convinced that smartness is validated by an acceptance letter: that the opening lines from the dean of undergraduate admissions really mean “we see you, we want you.” And they must be right, because otherwise, what are we all doing here?
On campus at Columbia, this narrative of verified smartness crescendos. We assume—because the work of proving has already been done by the admissions office—that the entire student body is comprised of only the most brilliant, most hardworking, and most deserving.
Even as we all constantly engage in conversations about class and race and gender and all sorts of other institutional inequalities, we seem to ignore the fact that elite college admissions have a long way to go before universities can proclaim to truly assess merit. To assert that any of us “deserves” our spot here ignores the fact that most of us got into this school primarily because of dumb luck. Endless barriers prohibit some of our world’s brightest minds from ever even contemplating applying to Columbia: secondary and primary schooling, nutrition, moderate financial literacy, even the most remote ability to comprehend living in a city as expensive or far away as Manhattan.
Still, lately I’ve started paying attention to how often people throw in, like an assumed natural law, the extensive smartness of everyone here—the little ways we have transcended our peers. In one class, a professor explains to us how low the level of political knowledge is for the American electorate; he announces, “Well, not you guys, of course. You all are Columbia students. Your knowledge level isn’t typical at all.” Op-eds upon op-eds published by Spectator ruminate on the high intelligence of all students here: how we all know so much, work so hard, and are so very special.
This isn’t to say Columbia students aren’t generally smart people. But these interactions do make me uncomfortable, as I think they should make us all. Sure, I worry about what this elitism does to our egos, but I also worry about what it does to our perceptions of the world and how we fit into it. It is damaging to constantly tell ourselves we are smarter than most of the people in this country.
On a political level, this constant self-affirmation feeds into the already thriving perception of academic tradition and truth as elitist (a sentiment alive and well not only on Breitbart, but also at plenty of the dinner tables of people who will never be welcome at Columbia). More personally, though, this elitism can become a crutch we cling to when we feel our smallest: “Well, at least I’m not at a state school,” we might say, or years later, “At least I have an Ivy League degree.”
In her famous sociological book, Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street, which explains why students at elite colleges disproportionately frock to Wall Street positions, author Karen Ho says, “Those most enamored of, or dependent on, their putative membership in ‘the cream of the crop’ seek ways to maintain and continue [this] high status.”
So do we buy into this narrative because we are the smartest, or because we are the most insecure? After four grueling years of endless extracurriculars, test prep, and AP classes, it is difficult to admit that maybe we don’t all “deserve” our spot as much as the Facebook comments from our relatives might imply. In a time when the United States is experiencing unprecedented wealth inequality, with a president elected on the very platform of taking down the cultural elite, we have an obligation to lean into our own admissions discomfort. We should unpack the reasons why we need this validation, and why it can be so hard to acknowledge its ubiquity. It’s worth considering why the Columbia insignia is a royal crown.
The author is a first-year at Barnard College and an associate editorial page editor for Spectator. When she is not editing or discoursing, she is probably trying out every independent coffee shop on the island of Manhattan.
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