STERN: The long Social Darwinist movement

A Stern Perspective

In 1940, Yale made a generous yet troubling offer to academics at Oxford and Cambridge: Send your children to peaceful New Haven to wait out the war. Several hundred Oxford dons took Yale up on the offer. This was a prime example of the sort of genteel philanthropic attitude that characterized the first half of the twentieth century. Benevolent, sure, but guided by nefarious desires nonetheless.

scott_stern_headshot_peter_tianThe Yale hosts, many of whom were prominent members of the American Eugenics Society, made this offer to Oxford and Cambridge out of an explicit desire to repopulate postwar Britain with the children of a superior race. Better to save the children of enlightened stock than to let Britain repopulate in naturally haphazard fashion.

We’d all like to think this mentality is a relic of the distant past. And, in many obvious ways, it is. Yale has much greater diversity than it did decades ago. Yale has a president who has spoken eloquently about the need for greater socioeconomic mobility.

But in a few subtle ways, Social Darwinism remains. And, as with the early movement, Yale is one of its bastions.

If you work hard enough in high school — if you get good enough grades and join just enough extracurriculars — then you deserve to get into Yale. Sure. This mind-numbingly simplistic calculus ignores so many of the realities of modern American life — capricious economic circumstance, institutionalized racism, a cycle of poverty, a glass ceiling for the underprivileged, a glass floor for the privileged and an unthinkable quantity of luck. By telling Yale students that, by dint of hard work, we deserve the privileges lavished upon us, society and Yale itself are perpetuating a dangerous myth.

We are here, we are told, because we are the best. Anyone else is not the best, the brightest, the leaders of tomorrow. This philosophy is the new Social Darwinism.

The Social Darwinists of today don’t talk about “human weeds” or “the feebleminded,” as they did decades ago. But those phrases have been supplanted by subtler ones — discussions of “thugs” and a class of “takers” still dominate. A recent issue of the Yale Alumni Magazine made the distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor while touting the University’s paternalistic magnanimity, writing that Yale admissions officers need to reach beyond “the low-hanging fruit.” Advertisements frequently appear in the pages of this newspaper, offering massive sums of money for Ivy League sperm or eggs. According to a 2012 survey by The Politic, Yalies support gay marriage and the legalization of marijuana at a considerably higher rate than they support raising taxes on the wealthiest 1 percent; undergirding this statistic is the notion that the wealthy deserve to be wealthy. Behind that is the idea that the poor deserve to be poor.

Because of the simple fact of where we go to school, society validates our intelligence with such constancy that many Yalies internalize the feelings of superiority. This is the dark side of the modern American “meritocracy.” For one thing, it isn’t a meritocracy. It couldn’t be when one person starts on third base and the other has to struggle just to come to the plate.

It isn’t a true meritocracy when the children of Yale alumni get an unfair advantage in college admissions. It isn’t a true meritocracy when expensive college consultants and private tutors groom certain applicants. It isn’t a true meritocracy when the wealthiest students have the time to become leaders in prominent extracurricular activities, unrestricted by on-campus jobs. It is survival of the softest. It is the privileged helping each other stay privileged and then telling each other that they deserve to be where they are, because they’re better than everyone else. This is Social Darwinism.

This philosophy — as callous as it is misguided — is not Yale’s fault, of course. It is a part of the larger continuum of Social Darwinism. Turn on your television and you will hear it every day — Mitt Romney believes he lost because nearly half the country is composed of “takers” who wanted too many “gifts” from the government. But Yale is a stronghold of this philosophy. And, in so many ways, Yale reinforces this philosophy. By highlighting stories of underprivileged kids pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, we ignore the reality that so few are afforded that chance. By constantly telling Yale kids they are the best, Yale kids begin to believe they are the best. With this sense of superiority comes entitlement.

We should recognize our Yale degree for what it is: a gift. A set of extraordinary advantages that few of us fully deserve. Because of these advantages we have a responsibility to do our utmost to level the playing field for everyone else to come. We cannot continue to delude ourselves into thinking we’re here because we are that much more deserving.

Scott Stern is a junior in Branford College. His columns run on Wednesdays. Contact him at scott.stern@yale.edu .

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