SCHWARTZ: Privilege and obligation

The Gadfly

A group of Harvard students have already drawn criticism for designing and selling Harvard-Yale game pinnies which read “#Occupy Yale” and “WE ARE THE 6%.” The slogan seems utterly distasteful, yet I have had trouble articulating why. Sure, it’s snobbish, elitist and awfully tacky to trumpet your admission rates, but what about the Harvard-Yale game — or either college independently — isn’t? Ultimately, the problem isn’t simply with the obviousness of the elitism; it’s that the elitism of the pinnies lacks any sense of obligation.

Yishai Schwartz '13
Yishai Schwartz '13

From the moment we arrive at Yale, we are surrounded with privilege and affirmations of special status. Anyone who has ever visited other colleges and universities knows that Yale’s facilities and resources are far from standard. From freshman orientation to Commencement, we are repeatedly reassured — explicitly and implicitly — that our intellectual merit and academic output entitle us to the lifestyles we have here. And though we have the taste not to flaunt our admissions statistics, many of us walk through campus with the confidence — granted to us by the decisions of Yale admissions — that we deserve this.

The Harvard-Yale game is just another manifestation of this long march of self-congratulation. This is a rivalry that matters because it is exclusive. For most, the passions over the Game have nothing to do with a love of sport or commitment to football; it is a product of the self-satisfied glee that accompanies the knowledge that we are members of an elite club. So if many of us seem to have very little problem with this ubiquitous elitism, what makes the T-shirt so distasteful?

The answer, I think, lies in how we frame our elitism. Every year at Commencement, President Levin does his darnedest to frame the privileges of intellect and ability — and of the Yale education — in terms of obligation. Yearly, he comments on the supposedly unique Latin formulation — admittance to “rights and responsibilities” — used when Yale confers its baccalaureate degree. This modern iteration of noblesse oblige is comforting; it allows us to escape from the entirely self-serving portrait of our Yale experience that we would otherwise be forced to paint ourselves into.

Which brings me back to the Harvard pinnie. The language of the shirt utterly rejects this obligation-laden vision of privilege. But it doesn’t even do so intelligently or purposefully. This is not a clever attempt to satirize or deconstruct our self-legitimizing mythologies about our place in society. Instead, these Harvard students seem to be reveling unabashedly in an elitism that feels no responsibility or commitment. These shirts are not self-directed criticism; they are another front in an insignificant (if harmless) rivalry within the privileged elite.

Harvard “occupying” Yale is much the equivalent of Morgan Stanley “occupying” Goldman Sachs: meaningless and totally beyond the point. Flaunting their status as “the 6%” in a game of one-upmanship with “the 7 percent” represents a total disregard to actual problems of inequity. The truly scary thing about these shirts is that they neither embrace nor cleverly play with the Occupy ideology; they simply ignore it.

These Harvard students are so blasé about their elite status, so uninterested in providing moral justification for it, that they appropriate a populist slogan without care for the content. In adapting the language of this movement to a shamelessly elitist context, they convict themselves of the very offense — careless, unobligated privilege — for which thousands have taken to the streets. So it’s not just that these students don’t feel communal obligation — they don’t even realize that they should. That is pretty frightening.

Yet I am not satisfied with simply identifying what is offensive about the Harvard pinnies; I am also genuinely concerned that their stupidity reflects the falseness of the entire “obligation” narrative with which we reassure ourselves here. How many Yalies enter college dreaming of public service and reforming the world, but graduate to careers in finance and consulting?

I don’t mean to attack those who choose to enter these professions, and I certainly wasn’t protesting Tuesday night’s info session at the Study. (Frankly, simplistic stunts like this — or the offensive checkpoint constructed on Cross Campus yesterday by students deliberately blind to the reality of terrorism — are pathetic pleas for attention from those who lack actual arguments.) If finance really is your dream and you plan on giving charity, God bless. But I am worried that Yale’s culture no longer forms and shapes us into public servants. Do any of us really feel that Yale is trying to mold our characters, that we are compelled to leave better people than when we arrived? There is that moment of moral direction at commencement, and I appreciate the central place of Dwight Hall on our campus, but very little else drives home any sense of obligation. And so I worry that the emphasis on the “responsibilities” of the Yale degree is merely empty ceremony and a remnant from a bygone day.

Let these pinnies serve as a wake-up call. If we can focus on our responsibilities and restore a clear consistent (Rev. Coffin-like?) voice asserting public duty — then we might just escape the arrogance of the 6 percent.

Yishai Schwartz is a junior in Branford College. His column runs on Thursdays. Contact him at


  • Socialmedic

    A group of Harvard students have already drawn criticism for their game theme, from whom? If you, as a Yale educated writer, are not going to footnote your text, you might show the reader the courtesy of publishing your source of information in the text body. Given Harvard, at least the main campus, is reputed to be a bastion of liberalism … the best of the best of liberal intellectuals. How then is it out of character, much less insulting, for Harvard to show solidarity with occupy Wall Street? As I recall, even Larry Summers, one of the architects of banking deregulation and global economic meltdown, did not survive at Harvard. Considering the another major architect of Wall Street disaster, a certain former president, is a Yale Alum … there couldn’t be anything more appropriate at this time and this place. Harvard may well understand that the smartest people in this country may well not be the richest. Just because the football field is on the other side of the river does not mean ALL of Harvard occupies the business school. Outside of that, the Harvard / Yale rivalry is bantering is in fun. And Harvard intends to occupy the Yale end zone to take the 10th year of winning home. Hope you can come up with something better than THIS on game day.

    • CrazyBus
      • Yale12

        Googling is hard.

    • CrazyBus

      Also, the aforementioned Yale Alum President went to Harvard for business school…..

    • LtwLimulus90

      Oh man just SHUT UP. Please. You’re a pretentious moron if you actually believe these shirts have any OWS-style populist ideology behind them in any way

    • dalet5770

      Here is you’re foot note
      Women make up three-quarters of the elderly population according to the US census

  • bcrosby

    @Socialmedia: Wait, do you really think that the Harvard pinnies are in any way showing ‘solidarity’ with OWS?

  • Socialmedic


    • bcrosby

      I’m sorry, but that strikes me as pretty absurd. For starters, the slogan “We are the 6%” is profoundly elitist. Given that OWS is predicated an a sort of populist anti-elite politics, staking a claim to be of the “6%” seems hardly in line with the rhetoric or goals of the movement.

      Moreover, there’s a question of a certain lack of respect for the movement implicit in marshaling its rhetoric for a…college football game, between two of the most elite, privileged institutions in the United States.

      I hope that Harvard students are ACTUALLY acting in solidarity with OWS – being involved with OccupyBoston, occupying Harvard Yard, etc. But let’s be real: donning an extraordinarily self-satisfied pinnie (one which boasts of its wearer’s privilege!) to annoy members of another incredibly rich school is NOT showing solidarity.

  • RexMottram08

    The non-profits are homes for mediocrities.

    But so are many of the banks and consultancies.

    Real work is being done by entrepreneurs.

  • River_Tam

    Can we discuss that the word “pinnie” is one of the worst words in the English language?


  • Yale12

    “or the offensive checkpoint constructed on Cross Campus yesterday by students deliberately blind to the reality of terrorism”

    Inserting this statement into a column about a Harvard pinnie is just beyond ridiculous. Can you not restrain yourself, Mr. Schwartz?

    • alsoanon

      Obviously not. And aside from that it was a pretty good column.

      • Labanite

        Really though. Just had to get it in somewhere. It takes away from the article, which is, as alsoanon said, pretty good.

    • yale_senior

      Yishai, you are a smart kid, but when it comes to Israel, you are just a hack. Like one of those talking heads on television, who find a way to connect the most mundane issues to their own pet causes. People with this level of extremism and dogmatism is honestly why the Israel-Palestine conflict is still going on.

      • Yale12

        Agreed. It’s extremely off-putting.

  • ScalabrineFan

    Harvard Students make t-shirt…….Yale students are “unabashedly elitist”…..Too many people go into consulting and finance. Ok, now I see how you got there.

    P.S. a guy named Schwartz taking a shot at Palestinians? That’s never happened before.

    • River_Tam

      Guess we now know why you hate bankers.

  • ScalabrineFan

    You’re right. Anybody who questions finance is an anti-semite.

    • River_Tam

      ? Who said anything about anti-Semitism?

      Looks like someone has Jews on the mind.

      • ScalabrineFan

        Ok then, what’s the reason I hate bankers? Clearly you were trying to imply that I was antisemitic.

        • River_Tam

          Someone’s a bit touchy. I don’t know why I’d think you’re an anti-Semite – I mean, you only criticized *one* guy for being Jewish and having an opinion on Israel.

  • btcl

    “If finance really is your dream and you plan on giving charity, God bless.”

    Thank you for acknowledging that entering into a high-paying career path can be at least partially motivated by a desire to financially support causes you believe about. While it would be great if every Yale student who was passionate about a social issue could start a non-profit that would make a difference, people are good at different things. Some people are good at economics and math and can help provide the extremely necessary financial support for our classmates who will create meaningful social organizations. Those organizations simply cannot run without money, so it’s necessary that Yale also shapes students who will go on to make a lot of money and donate it.

  • River_Tam

    I am not a public servant. I am a private citizen. Y’all can do what you want while you’re still living off your parents at age 25, but my parents didn’t work overnight shifts because they wanted me to save the Spotted Owl.

  • ScalabrineFan

    Look at this from the other side. If you had a lot of family money, would you go into public service or the private sector to make a lot of money? I don’t think that going into the public sector would be bad in this case. It’s great that you are in the private sector, but not everybody is faced with your choices/family circumstances.

    • River_Tam

      > . If you had a lot of family money, would you go into public service or the private sector to make a lot of money?

      Honestly? I’d probably be an artist. Either music or writing.

  • dalet5770

    I can’t wait for the day that, gaiety, and laughter return to the United States. So we can finally put an end to the homo erotic fantasies, that are destroying the neutral zone

  • The Anti-Yale

    “still living off your parents at age 25′

    It’s the ECONOMY stupid !