By now, many of us have seen the latest cover of the Economist, featuring a portrait of a man with a powdered wig and a Yale jacket, underneath the headline, “America’s new aristocracy.”
The main claim of the Economist’s cover article is that, for the first time in America’s history, our country’s elite have reached a point where they can “reliably reproduce themselves.” The article points to the growing prominence of American political dynasties in the 2016 presidential field, as well as to the anti-meritocratic admissions policies of universities such as Yale, as evidence that America’s wealthiest and most powerful have become increasingly secure.
The purpose of this column is not to evaluate the claims of the Economist cover article about Yale’s admissions policies (I’ll wait until after the Registrar’s Office responds to my FERPA access request for copies of my admissions records). Rather, I want to examine how Yale students have approached the reality that it will be disproportionately easy for them to obtain status, wealth and political power after they graduate.
It is a common trope that Yalies are embarrassed by the social status that comes along with attending a top university. We tell people that we “go to school in Connecticut,” and most of us treat Yale’s most pretentious rituals at least somewhat ironically.
This embarrassment is, in part, an admirable expression of humility, a recognition that none of us really deserve the wonderful education we’re treated to. Yet I’d also submit that this embarrassment prevents many Yalies from directly confronting the reality that many of us will obtain positions of societal leadership, and from treating this fact with the appropriate gravity.
Ultimately, I’m worried that many Yalies will eventually find themselves in roles where they make decisions for large groups of people but will be entirely unprepared.
At Yale, we adopt a particular vocabulary when it comes to preparing for these sorts of roles: We talk about gaining expertise, becoming leaders and checking our privilege. Yet, will these skills, which we develop in college, actually prepare Yalies to be responsible influences in business, media, government and civil society?
Take “expertise,” for example. There are hundreds of courses at Yale that teach technical and analytic skills: how to conduct experiments, design cost-benefit analyses, research primary sources or analyze complex texts. But how many courses, or other parts of campus life, focus on determining what sort of values we should use our expertise to implement? The majority of our courses at Yale skirt the most important normative questions. Yet future diplomats must consider not just the efficacy of sanctions, but also what sort of world order they hope to achieve. Future investors should not only be able to evaluate liquid assets, but also which human endeavors are worth investing in. Future journalists ought to learn not just the rules of sourcing, but what news citizens really need to hear.
Yale’s focus on “leadership” is another prime target for critique. Yale University’s mission statement includes a sentence about educating students “for leadership,” yet this seems to consist, in practice, of running our campus’s hundreds of extracurricular groups. While extracurricular groups are wonderful, and their leaders learn to plan events, set budgets and organize people, these roles are undoubtedly not adequate preparation for societal leadership. Filling the types of roles that many Yalies will occupy after graduation takes more than just organizational skills: It requires the ability to craft visions that speak to the concerns of large and diverse groups of people, whether corporate business strategies or campaign platforms. On this account, we spend not nearly enough time at Yale dreaming up visions of how the world could be, and even less leaving Yale and learning what different parts of our society care about.
Finally, we often speak about Yalies’ roles in society using the language of “privilege.” While it is incredibly important that students at a university such as ours realize how lucky and advantaged we are (indeed, this is my main claim in this column), telling people to check their privilege is more likely to silence them and make them feel guilty than to inspire them to take on responsibility and to live up to the roles in which they have been put. Counting their blessings should make Yalies feel the audacity to give back to others, an audacity that sometimes feels missing in our undergraduate community.
The Economist’s cover article highlights the ease with which many Yalies will acquire positions of leadership after graduation, yet we have not yet owned up to this reality as a community. If, as the article claims, Yalies will be part of “America’s new aristocracy,” they should spend as much energy as possible learning to be responsible aristocrats: deciding upon their values, crafting visions that others can buy into and developing the audacity to live up to their responsibilities.
Scott Greenberg is a senior in Ezra Stiles College. His column runs on Tuesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.