I couldn’t take it anymore. Forty-five minutes after my train ground to a halt just outside Boston, the little girl sitting two rows down from me had sung “It’s a Small World” so many times, Walt Disney would have strangled her. Desperate for a distraction, I reached for a tattered copy of “Arrive,” the official Amtrak magazine, from the seat-back in front of me. I can’t say what inspired me to pick that particular magazine. Was it the irony of reading Amtrak publicity material while stranded on a broken train? Was it a resurgence of my childhood fascination with locomotives? Or was it the seductive gaze of Joe Biden, cover boy of the January/February issue?
Yes, the vice president of the United States has a new notch in his belt: a cover article in Amtrak’s self-promotional onboard periodical. The piece — “The Right Track: A Longtime Amtrak Rider on Why America Will Always Need Trains” — features eight photographs of Amtrak Joe, four personal anecdotes and more stories of struggling Americans than Biden has sparkling white teeth. And we thought Scott Brown was the only national windbag worthy of a centerfold.
Biden’s blurb isn’t the journal’s only self-referential piece. When the singing girl in front of me moved on from “It’s a Small World” to songs from “Mulan,” I quickly buried my face in the next feature article: an exposition on Vermont ski resorts (conveniently accessible via Amtrak lines) which opens by citing the Old Farmer’s Almanac prediction that Vermont is in for a snowy winter. Then there was the letter from Amtrak’s CEO, surreptitiously named Joseph Boardman, entitled “Here’s to Excellence.” And to cap it all off, the last page is a homage to Michael Phelps’ love for Baltimore (whose primary train station is one of Amtrak’s biggest hubs) and “Call of Duty 4.”
Now I enjoy a little well-deserved self-congratulation as much as the next guy. Even while thumbing through the magazine, I was patting myself on the back for doing well in an interview that afternoon. For all its faults, Amtrak has something to be proud of — it carries nearly 30 million passengers per year with federal subsidies that pale in comparison to the interstate highway system per passenger mile. But the staff of Amtrak’s magazine should make sure their collective ego-inflation isn’t sending the wrong message. In November 2009, 20.1 percent of all the company’s northeast regional trains ran behind schedule and Amtrak has yet to turn a profit. Biden’s right that America needs trains, but the trains we have aren’t doing nearly well enough to warrant the toast, “here’s to excellence.”
Yalies, no strangers to self-aggrandizement, might learn a thing or two from the absurdity of Amtrak’s magazine. Our university certainly has reason to be proud, but reveling in our success — warranted or not — sometimes distracts us from real progress. From endless Yale Bulletin articles about Kroon Hall to Sex Week’s general fetishizing of college party culture, navel-gazing never seems to get old around here. This time of year, perhaps no example stands out as egregiously as the Senior Class Gift.
The Senior Class Gift focuses on recognition. The participation rates of residential colleges are posted on the campaign’s Web site, so all can see which one is doing the best. The Nathan Hale Associates program confers special recognition on students who contribute sums in excess of $100, with special symbol for those who give $250 or more. It’s clear that acknowledgement is a crucial incentive for charitable giving — there’s a reason almost every building at Yale carries a family name. But is donating money enough of an achievement to justify the praise?
The Senior Class Gift should be an opportunity for dialogue about what facets of the Yale experience we value most, a chance for students to voice their opinions about the successes and failures of the institution — not an orgy of competitive giving with the end goal of feeling great about ourselves.
Publicizing the percentage of the class which donates to the gift is nothing more than a boast that we have money and are willing to give it away. And posting an online list of seniors who have donated exceptionally large amounts rewards financial means and pride instead of highlighting the aspects of the institution that should inspire people to give. And, as Chandler Coggins ’10 noted (“Gift campaign goes for broke,” Feb. 5), students, fueled by the promise of recognition — either individually or as a class —have begun to pressure their peers unfairly.
Given all the remarkable work Yalies accomplish on campus and around the world, we shouldn’t waste our time inflating our own egos. Like Biden says, America will always need trains — and it will always need Yale — but it doesn’t need another Amtrak magazine.
Benjamin Miller is a senior in Morse College