We, Columbia students, are not that amazing.
The other day I watched a TEDx talk by a Harvard alumnus where he brought up the concept of a so-called “Ivy League mentality.” As soon as he first used that phrase, it puzzled me. He went on to define this “mentality” as a combination of “mental toughness, perseverance, confidence, passion, and social responsibility.” That only heightened my confusion. Surely, I thought, I can attest the “Ivy League mentality” is not real; and if it is, it’s certainly not this pile of positive adjectives he used. If anything, I’ve found the mentality he described in greater abundance just about anywhere outside of the campuses of elite universities.
It’s misleading to claim perseverance as a trait of the “Ivy League mentality” when most of us live on campus, several of us eat mostly meals prepared for us, and only the less privileged of us absolutely need to work (sometimes two jobs) alongside our studies in order to afford higher education. How can we claim perseverance as an Ivy League trait in an environment that in no way reflects the reality of much of this planet’s population? The students who can talk about perseverance here struggle to do their readings on their daily MTA commute; they cook food for seven days on Sunday nights and eat the same rice and beans every day of the week, or microwave ramen because somehow the wealthiest country in the world refuses to feed them fresh vegetables. They go to bed at four in the morning finishing a research paper because they had to work from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. and then 3 p.m. to 7 p.m.
More than that, perseverance comes from those very far from the Ivy League. They are nowhere near being able to afford paperback novels, let alone academic books. It comes from those who travel for hours every day to go to school in crumbling public buildings, with no plumbing or electricity, and too often with no qualified teachers. Perseverance comes from those who beg, walk barefoot, or endure violence so they can learn but a small fraction of what we have readily available for us here. They categorically refuse to be kept in the dark by a world that prioritizes competition over solidarity—a world that worships the Ivy League and spits on the masses.
Even worse are the claims to “confidence” and “passion.” The most confident Ivy League students are those who know they would be just as well-off with a degree from anywhere else, because their comfort has been inherited and secured as if through their DNA. As for the others who dare to be confident after they graduate from here, that frequently (if not always) is owed less to their state-of-the-art academic background than to the fetish-like obsession the market has with Ivy League spawn. So many of us thrive here because we “network,” and only some of us because we work. In this sense, it’s easy to see why an Ivy League student would feel a sense of “passion” for their alma mater. How can we not love someone who gives to us so easily in a world so hard?
But my brain really glitches at the idea of “social responsibility.” In 2007, 47 percent of Harvard graduates entering the job markets took positions in consulting or finance. Three years later, 60 percent of the graduating class at Princeton with full-time jobs were going into one of those two areas, despite the plethora of majors available to students. The biggest investment bank in the United States, which aggressively recruits all year round on Columbia's campus, has assets in an amount close to the GDP of India, the country with the second-largest population in the planet. Twenty-seven out of the twenty-eight biggest banks in the world are headquartered in just nine nations. Given this outrageous context, defending the concept of a generalized "Ivy League mentality" that includes social responsibility seems, at the very least, hypocritical.
This is definitely not to say that there are no socially responsible people in the Ivies, or that everyone who goes into finance and consulting is indifferent towards social inequality. But it must be agreed that we are, for the most part, helping the maintenance of a large-scale problem rather than living up to our international fame as "bearers of the solution." The truth is many of us will go on to professionally stimulate inequality.
There is a reason why I named my column this semester “A Persistent Flaw.”" All of my pieces have dealt in some way or another with a deep flaw of mine, one that haunts me and worries me every day: judgment. So many of my personal problems arrive from my excessive need to judge—I judge others' actions, the rationale behind their choices, and their personal restrictions involved in making some decisions over others. The one individual I judge most often, however, is myself.
Halfway through my studies at Columbia, I now question my true motivations for having come here. What kind of resources was I looking for in the Ivy League? Did I enroll here out of pride, fear, or ambition? All three were most certainly involved in that decision. It saddens me that what should have been the main reason for this choice—the urge to learn—was probably not the deciding factor for myself. All I can commit myself to do is to direct every privilege an Ivy League degree and education will give me towards reverting the damage institutions like Columbia make in the world.
We, Columbia students, are not that amazing. Our mentalities are not that tough, persevering, confident, passionate, or socially responsible. We do not know as much about the world as we pretend to know. We rarely roll up our sleeves and dare to make change—most of the time, those who do have come from places of socio-economic insecurity themselves. Some of us do not care at all about what goes on beyond elite spaces. We just have “connections.” Maybe we should learn to connect more with reality.
Gabriel is a sophomore in CC studying political science and Latin American & Caribbean studies. He thanks everyone who has read his column “A Persistent Flaw” every other week. Having these dialogues with you has made his semester more worthwhile. In case you want to “connect” with him, shoot him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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