As the cold sets in and the applications at the admissions office arrive daily by the hundreds, my thoughts recently wandered to the months before that hectic time started for me at the beginning of senior year, when I first learned just how much effort other students had already put into their applications. The prospect of applying to Yale only entered my head in the summer before senior year, and when I told my counselor at school she almost snickered: “People start their applications to Yale in the eighth grade!
It was a fact that had never occurred to me — in the eighth grade, I was dealing with a family move to Kentucky from New York City, and college was the last thing on my mind. It would take more than two years to start thinking concretely about the vague jumble of schools beginning to float around in the ether as possible choices. Finding out that friends had been making moves directed at college admission for years was a startling, alarming realization.
It wasn’t until getting here that I discovered many people had spent years being groomed for this at mini-Yales around the country — boarding schools, day schools and uber-competitive public high schools with strong histories of sending people to the Ivies. Freshmen arrived on campus, as I’d soon figure out myself, already conversant in “Yale language” — in other words, they had taken humanitarian trips around the world and could knowledgably complain about which airports were comfortable and which ones to avoid. Somebody I met had been to 77 countries. All this projected confidence, legitimacy, learnedness. Welcome to Yale!
But I was fortunate in two major ways: I went to a very decent, suburban public high school and I’d spent years in speech and debate. Confidence (or at least the visible kind) wasn’t a problem. I could match the loudest “section asshole” if I wanted to — even though everyone knows the more socially adept way to handle section is to time your comments carefully and seem less-than-confident, even if you really have a lot to say on a particular day, so as to avoid playing into the stereotype. Winning at Yale means being so good that you know when to seem smart and when that’s actually going to do more harm than good.
But if you’re wondering where this is going, here it is: Almost no one in the world thinks this much about projecting the right self-image, and those who do are here in highest concentration. The students groomed by family and society from a very young age know not just how to work well, but also how to represent oneself in an insecure, neurotic world that discourages overt displays of wealth or knowledge. You’ve got to know when certain statements fly and when they don’t. And these nuances and subtleties of how to behave go far beyond what common sense provides. You have to be intimately aware of how people think and perceive others in the current cultural context.
We live in a knowledge oligarchy, where not only are very few aware of these accepted modes of behavior — making it very hard to act in the requisite way for success among the elite — but this knowledge is also very hard to transmit. You already need to have some to get to Yale in the first place, and it only becomes more of an important factor from there on. What about those who don’t, and never figure out what exactly it is you have to know and be aware of to have a shot at reaching the upper boundaries of the American dream? Or is elite culture really as segmented, out of reach and self-perpetuating as ever?
This adds a very different dimension to the discussion about economic and social inequality in America. It’s true that every once in a while an extremely adept individual will come from poverty, aided by natural talents, and get to the top of the food chain. But for every one of these individuals it seems as though there must be 10 who had a lot of help along the way — who were told, “Do this,” “Don’t do that,” and who came to Yale with their vocabulary and awareness already trained for the social situation they were about to walk into. It’s true for Yale, her fellow Ivies and for the many other hubs of elite culture in America today.
The knowledge oligarchy disproportionately favors the upper class, and it’s a subtler kind of dominance because it exists between the lines of speech and behavior. But it’s just another way that those in endemic poverty are systematically short-changed by a status quo whose bizarre ways they cannot even begin to comprehend.
John Aroutiounian is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. His column runs on alternate Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.