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 yishai.schwartz@yale.edu.

Comments