Whenever boasting to friends that I never engaged in a high school extracurricular designed to pad my college resume, I secretly harbored a major exception: Model United Nations, the simulation of international diplomacy and coalition building that engrosses thousands of young adults across the globe. I don’t have anything against the type of students who do MUN. Many, in high school and at Yale, are some of the most ambitious, intelligent and fun-loving policy wonks around.
But having participated in MUN conferences across the country and recently having staffed YMUN on campus, I have come to terms with problems that are inherent and unique to the activity. For all its good — the camaraderie, the learning about international affairs, the emphasis on speaking skills — MUN is a pursuit that systematically values all the wrong qualities. Most notably, the disproportionate role wealth plays in a student’s MUN experience.
Until only recently, the brotherhood between wealth and diplomacy made sense. Travel was decidedly expensive, and only the well-connected could afford the cultural and physical niceties needed by a diplomat. Furthermore, the type of education you would receive at bastions of elitism such as Oxford or Eton were tailored for future diplomats. Whereas most schools emphasized math and science, these institutions trained their students in rhetoric and other aspects of a classical education. But today, as schools like Yale have become more accessible to everyone, you would think that the field of international relations would be more democratized. Even if Yale’s student body is still on average quite wealthy, the commercialization of transportation and the arrival of the Internet has made real-time knowledge available to virtually everyone.
But MUN is loath to catch up. It is, in every aspect, a game couched in money. According to Best Delegate, the uncontested authority on Model UN team rankings, only three of the 10 best college teams in the country hail from public universities. At the high school level, the public-private gap persists. Although only nine percent of American students attend private schools, three of the top five squads in the nation are private, according to 2012–13 rankings. Worse yet, in the Northeast, just six of the top 25 teams are public, non-magnet schools. There’s strong evidence that wealth correlates with MUN success.
What’s going on? Well, for starters, MUN isn’t free. First, conferences charge for registration. On campus, YMUN requests a non-refundable down payment of $325 on top of $80 per student, $40 per advisor and $50 to $100 for the entire team, depending on the size. Not to mention, of course, mandatory hotel rates — delegates must stay in a designated, conference-sanctioned hotel — that can amount to over $500 by weekend’s end. And this doesn’t even include transportation costs — a hefty cost for delegations outside the area. Before uttering even a word of foreign policy, delegates and their schools are forced to muster thousands of dollars simply to attend the conference.
These costs are even higher in cities such as Washington D.C., New York, Chicago and Philadelphia, where the best conferences are held.
But this isn’t a one-time show. To ascend the rankings and become a respected MUN power, your school has to perform commendably at as many conferences as possible. For most competitive clubs, this typically requires attending at least three conferences. And although MUN conferences, including those at Yale and Harvard, are beginning to roll out financial aid policies — yes, imagine FAFSA but for a four-day conference — they remain more gestures than commitments.
Let’s now finally step inside the actual committee room. Sadly, though there are exceptions, committees are not egalitarian platforms of debate and disagreement. They are cage fights, brimming with personal animosities and hyper-competitive zeal. Those who thrive generally exhibit several traits all empirically conducive to attaining wealth and positions of power: height, aggressiveness and physical attractiveness. They are, no doubt, traits invariably important across life. But that doesn’t mean they ought to be qualities cultivated and lusted for in our nation’s youngest and brightest. Furthermore, wealthy students learn skills such as networking and diplomatic flattery at the dinner parties their parents host, if not in the classrooms of New England prep schools.
This is not to condemn the intent behind MUN, but to bring to light existing problems in one of the most prominent high school pastimes.
MUN would be well served by abolishing awards, a practice that rewards a winner-take-all mentality that is antithetical to the spirit of diplomacy. Additionally, YMUN should use its revenue to increase financial aid and make the conference more accessible.
Still, in an entrenched system held dear by many, the opposition is stiff. That’s life, the counterargument goes. But can’t a club designed to grapple with fake crises solve a real-world problem?
Graham Ambrose is a freshman in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.