Monday, March 16, 2015

I'm Sorry, But The Ivy League Secretly Deserves the Major Side-Eye, and Here's Why

Regular readers of O.H.M. know that I like to tell it like it is. They also know that my favorite target of mockery and truth-telling is myself.

Occasionally, however, certain things (e.g. bad movies and wine tasting) deserve some shade, too. In other words, there are a few other things that secretly deserve to be told like they are. One of those things, in my opinion, is The Ivy League.

In my last post, I threw a bit of shade in the general direction of my alma mater, Brown University, which prompted some thinking and self-reflection. I recently attended my 15th year college reunion and was happy to see many old friends. But mostly, being in Providence brought back depressing memories of what were certainly not the “best years of my life,” as I’d been promised by every single adult I met. Every time I heard that, I’d think to myself, “Wow. Really? If these are the best years of my life, I need to grab a friend, jump in a convertible, and drive off the nearest cliff like Susan Sarandon and Gena Davis in Thelma and Louise.”

Don't misunderstand: I’m grateful for the opportunity to attend a school like Brown and I'm definitely grateful for the friends I made there, without whom my life wouldn't be the same. But I think it's possible to be grateful for one's education and the opportunities it has afforded while simultaneously recognizing and acknowledging that there is a huge element of complete and total elitist bullshit to that whole tray of enchiladas. In other words, you can acknowledge that you were lucky to have access to something special while also pointing out all the things that are extremely fucked up about that thing and the system it reflects and perpetuates.

Every other article in The New York Times is about how competitive these schools are and how you need to put your child in Mandarin immersion preschool by 18 months if you have any hope of their success in life. Well, I'd rather risk my kids being rejected from Yale if it means they get to play outside and draw pictures of fairies and dragons a little bit longer, instead of being prepped for conscription into academic and corporate warfare like some sort of upper-class, robot child-soldier.

Worse than anything that happens at the schools themselves, however, are these alumni “clubs” like The Harvard Club or The Princeton Club of New York, where my husband worked in his first job out of college, and where his boss made him an unwitting drug mule by asking him to deliver and retrieve sealed packages to some bar in Hell’s Kitchen called “Wanda’s Full Moon Saloon.” She (his boss, not Wanda) was ultimately arrested in a drug bust at The Princeton Club. Stay classy, Princeton!

It’s obvious that the main purpose of these “clubs” is to assemble in the same mahogany-paneled room a critical mass of rich people who are supposed to help you move up in the world by getting you the right jobs and making you the right connections and generally positioning your lips to kiss the right asses at the right time.

But like anything that's over-hyped, all of these schools and their networks trade on their reputation and labels more than anyone wants to admit. The unpleasant reality is that these are some of the country's oldest institutions, born in the cradle of America's ignominious history of racism, antisemitism, and other hallmarks of bigotry and elitism (real elitism, not Sarah Palin's definition of "elitism"). 

Every admissions office and board of trustees would like to make believe none of it ever happened, but all the old dynamics are secretly very much alive and well, if only implicitly now, as opposed to explicitly and officially sanctioned, as they once were.

I still remember the day I got into Brown, early decision. Oh boy. I was really proud of myself, let me tell you! I was walking around on Cloud Nine all day long. I called my boyfriend and my grandfather and everyone I could think of. My family was proud of me, too. I felt smart and cool because this vaunted institution had validated my entire existence.

Of course I want my kids to feel those same feelings of validation in their lives someday, but not for the same reasons. I want them to feel validated because they are self-motivated and internally driven. My wish for them is that they never allow any outside force--including a college admissions letter--to get the last word on their self-worth.

Because that, my friends, deserves the O.H.M. side-eye more than just about anything I can think of.

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