Professor Evan Mandery has some harsh words for elite colleges, particularly Ivy League schools, because they tend to produce people like me. In the Chronicle of Higher Education, he presents an excerpt from his recent book, Poison Ivy: How Elite Colleges Divide Us, and argues that I am not among “the real villains,” despite my having written an essay in 2014 for the Princeton Tory arguing that “privilege” is a useless (at best) and pernicious (at worst) concept for understanding contemporary American life. The real villain is Princeton itself, among the other “institutions that indoctrinated” me into thinking that I had earned my success. All this despite Mandery’s admission that I—more accurately, 20-year-old me—might have deserved my critics’ “contempt.” (Mandery laments that people like me have a hard time learning gratitude, so I suppose I should first thank him for letting me off the hook.)
Mandery, who teaches at the City University of New York (where he has “never seen or heard anyone boast that their college status is deserved”) marshals a few related arguments to prove Princeton’s villainy and that of its peer institutions. His main point is that belief in the myth of meritocracy is generally corrosive, but elite colleges encourage students to believe that they have earned their success. This makes people like me “smug” and “annoying,” and prevents the “recognition that [we] are winners in a game that had been tilted in [our] favor from the start.” Ivy League graduates, moreover “are not the best and the brightest or the hardest working,” but “some of the best, brightest, and hardest working among the very rich.”
There’s a lot in there, reflecting just what a nerve my essay struck and how unresolved its subject remains, despite the moral certainty that characterized so many critical responses. Much of Mandery’s assessment, as a professor criticizing a decade-old piece, is familiar—you’d be amazed how many people have told me that my penniless, liberated-slave grandparents were rich because they didn’t have it as bad as non-whites in America—and seems to extrapolate from a few lines of my essay what it takes my position to be rather than reading it all the way through. Then, as now, most of my critics understood my position to come from a place of entitlement—that I thought I had earned everything I had by hard work alone, and resented being told that the game had been tilted in my favor.
I will admit I am no great fan of being told that the game is rigged, if only because that theory sorely lacks explanatory power. (How Jews, recent immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean, Indians, and white people raised by single parents figure into theories of systemic power is a topic that deserves an essay of its own.) But even getting sucked into that rabbit hole concedes too much. At no point did I deny that many other people’s choices and circumstances played a large role in my becoming who I am. Indeed, my whole point was that Americans should be grateful for what they have inherited, rather than embrace the totalizing suspicion inherent in the “privilege” discourse.
Most readers, many of them precisely the regular Americans Mandery claims I am liable to look down on, understood that. In the months following my essay’s viral takeoff, I got thousands of emails. For every one I received calling me a bigot who “just doesn’t get it” (and there were many of those), I got several more from people across the country, of all ethnicities, every tax bracket, and both sexes, telling me that I had expressed exactly the position they wished elites (people like Mandery) would understand.
It turns out that my essay had proved something of a Rorschach test. To some, my rejection of “privilege” discourse revealed that I was arrogant, ungrateful, and ignorant of the ways in which I was not solely responsible for my success thus far in life. But to others, it was evidence of gratitude and the desire to share my forebears’ recipe for intergenerational mobility as widely as possible, to reject the pessimism inherent in systemic thinking. Interestingly, most of my classmates fell into the first camp. For all Mandery’s theorizing about the Ivy League being awash with the sense that status is justly earned, I was in the minority on my campus for believing generally in just deserts.
The majority view on campus, which Mandery shares, leads to some puzzling places. The belief that elite admissions are inherently unjust would undermine my classmates’ case for attending Princeton, rather than someone who probably needs the mobility boost more than they did. One way that universities avoid this conundrum is to emphasize the college campus as a community meant to be an interesting and fun place to spend four years, and deemphasize the educational outcomes it produces. Top schools are not exactly home to the best and brightest from among the rich, as Mandery claims, but the most multi-talented and unique from among the best and brightest, with uniqueness (of cultivated skills and idiosyncratic interests) correlating closely with wealth.
For Princeton to maintain its median SAT score and intimate campus experience alongside a full complement of sports teams, a cappella groups, comedy troupes, literary magazines, and social justice clubs, it has to choose every one of its roughly 1,500 annual admits carefully. Students who take this view of the campus to heart can simultaneously hold the beliefs that they belong and deserve to be there in some sense, all without believing that those not admitted have lesser intellects or didn’t work hard enough. It is not that hard to conclude that you have to be lucky and good to go to a great college. And it seems praiseworthy to want to share what you believe to be the keys to your good fortune. Yet pessimists like Mandery would rather tear down the notion of earned success than encourage the kinds of behaviors that elite colleges select for, which really do make for vibrant and interesting communities, and whose cultivation, it stands to reason, makes our culture and economy more vibrant as well.
Nonetheless, I must admit that I agree with Mandery’s main point. Elite universities do their students a disservice when they pay excessive attention to student accomplishments at a juncture in their lives when they cannot have accomplished much. That spirit animates a great deal, though not all, of campus culture. What ends up happening is that, to stand out as a social elite among the elites, students begin to tout their unique accomplishments, frequently tied up with unique “identities.” One classmate was heralded for being the first gay man to summit some of the world’s tallest mountains (including, I think, Mount Everest). That kind of Mad-Libs self-branding was central to social climbing—a natural consequence of going from the 99th-percentile SAT score to suddenly feeling like you’re the slowest in your own dorm, not to mention the ridiculously competitive admissions process that encourages any indications of distinction from the outset.
But what seems most responsible for colleges fêting their students is the dominant cultural idea that we all deserve celebration just for being who we are. The story is well-worn: universities used to see themselves as centers of preparation for citizenship in a liberal republic, but now exist primarily as a stage for students to find and liberate their inner identities or “true selves” and show the world how terrific they are when they can live authentically. In short, colleges used to celebrate the process of becoming; now, they celebrate being. That is part of a much broader cultural force that encourages people of all ages to reject external constraints (social constructs, inherited norms, and so on) in order to achieve fulfillment through better service to the imperial self. If colleges have skimped on their obligation to fashion humble, grateful, selfless graduates, one need look no further than the liberationist movements that spawned on campus and continue to dominate there. The ones that celebrate every identity imaginable, as if to say, you are worthy of praise simply for being who you are. The “extraordinary accomplishments” referenced in every welcome-weekend speech are those of finding your unique brand; those referenced in graduation addresses refer to the strides students have made in developing the identity they will bring to bear on the world.
Such an observation only brings into sharper focus just how strange it is to blame a kind of conservative or classical liberal attitude about the relation between contribution and desert for the behaviors of individuals shaped by overwhelmingly progressive institutions. More likely is that having rejected the classical liberal view, today’s elite students have replaced the old signs of worthiness—SAT scores, a proper WASP background—with new ones befitting a progressive elite dedicated to an identity-obsessed worldview and its resultant demands for “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.”
The new signs are quite like those “virtue signals” we are always hearing about, but they are not just about letting your classmates know you are one of the good guys. In the elite campus context, signaling that you are committed to remedying all group-level disparities, that you understand that members of “oppressor” classes are epistemically stunted due to their privilege, and that you are up to speed on the new terminologies, identities, and problematics—all these show existing members of the progressive technocratic elite that you are prepared to use whatever power you will soon have to take up their cause. Publicly repeating the mantras that life was rigged in your favor and that Princeton is systemically racist is an excellent sign that you are a true believer who can be trusted with power, and that you have been properly trained to handle, for instance, a White House committed to equity and forgiving student loan debt. Fighting elitism qua elitism is just silly: there will always be elites, and there will always be institutions committed to producing those elites and teaching them the right signals. The key question is what kinds of virtues those signals stand for.
The signals are coming in loud and clear, showing that Mandery has underestimated the reach of the philosophy he seeks to advance at the expense of the one he identifies with me. He derides my “nihilistic straw man” who believes “no accomplishment is deserved.” Yet he notes the inconceivable irony that Michael Sandel’s Harvard students believe in merit despite reading John Rawls, who argues that rewarding socially beneficial behaviors is “unjust, since they’re the result of what amounts to a natural lottery.” Rawls is indeed the enemy of merit and the notion that reward should be commensurate to one’s socially beneficial activity. And joining Mandery on Team Rawls is everyone who has bought into the equity agenda, which aims to remedy disparities between groups that have emerged because of morally arbitrary mass preferences for certain behaviors (politeness, punctuality, preference for the written word, to name a few) that individuals only exhibit due to morally arbitrary factors. My “straw man” does not just exist; he has won the White House, MacArthur Genius grants, and the culture.
Allow me one more word in my defense. Nobody “indoctrinated” me into rejecting Rawls, believing that a combination of talent, work, and luck leads to success. No one brainwashed me into thinking that the whole privilege discourse lacked explanatory power, hurt those it was trying to help, and demeaned us all in the process. (And if they did indoctrinate me, it certainly didn’t happen at the opening exercises Mandery cites; I skipped those and spent the afternoon watching football.)
The privilege essay itself and the firestorm that followed is a microcosm of everything I am talking about. I came to the position I expressed based on a combination of logic, education, and experience, especially the influence of my (City University–graduate) parents. Writing it brought about many negative consequences, and some good ones, too. But nobody made me write it, and no one but me should reap those consequences. No matter who tries to rob my life of agency, or saddle others with accountability for my choices, I know that I alone had the choice whether or not to publish it, and I went ahead and did it. And, as a descriptive matter, this is what has happened: I live with the consequences, good and bad, every day—I and no one else.
I do not think I am exceptional. We all make choices against an infinite backdrop of characteristics, values, and experiences. Some elements of the backdrop are chosen, some unchosen. Some are chosen by those who came before us, who wished us good or ill. How we choose to conceive of our choice—and the choices of others in their own particular circumstances—is up to us. But that conception itself, whatever we choose, has consequences, and picking unwisely can lead only to despair, distrust, and moral backwardness, in which we punish the righteous and reward the guilty.
I will always pick believing that I and those around me have some agency in life. That doesn’t mean we deserve everything we have—we should be grateful for our good fortune—but it does mean that we can use our choices for good. Call me and my belief in desert naïve, but I will always choose to build up rather than tear down, and try to share my recipe for success—more accurately, that of my forebears—with others.