There are two groups of students at Yale: The Tahoe Class, and those who have come to Yale, for the most part, to join the Tahoe Class. The Tahoe Class is wealthy. Its members know that Tahoe is a ski resort in California. The other students don’t.
I’m drawing the class boundaries of Yale at the generalized fault line separating the Tahoe Class and the not-Tahoe Class because these cultural markers of class are precisely the blocks of the invisible wall around wealth — in America and at Yale. Members of the Tahoe Class cannot see these blocks because they cannot, or do not, admit the full effect their own wealth has had on their personality and success.
Securing a place in the Tahoe Class is a central reason that people attend Yale — either to join its ranks or to preserve their status as a member. Almost all of us want to be able to buy an Amtrak ticket instead of taking the Greyhound, to buy fresh produce for our kids, to have at least a month of vacation every year. That’s what membership in the Tahoe Class looks like — how the wealthy define the “comfortable” they hope their children will one day be.
Of course, financial capital is central to attaining and preserving cultural capital. But financial capital is also the only privilege the Tahoe Class acknowledges. Fundamentally, the Tahoe Class does not realize that other people don’t know what Tahoe is. It’s not just being able to spend $5 on a soy latte — it’s about not realizing that type of disposable income is unusual.
The blindness of the wealthy to their own status is a problem that transcends Yale, stemming from the myth of the “upper-middle class” (read: the wealthy of America). Wealthy students here come from America’s top quintile, people prosperous enough to own luxury sedans, but not wealthy enough to not care about the gas mileage. But since so much of the myth of the upper-middle class is a myth of meritocracy, students from this top 20 percent are reluctant to call themselves “wealthy.”
I am, as a card-carrying member of the Tahoe Class, frustrated by the lack of self-reflection among wealthy students. So many of us think that we got into that seminar because we deserve our spot more than other students. It never crosses our minds that we learned to write persuasive emails from watching our parents work as executives, lawyers and white-collar professionals all our lives.
Primarily, we do not realize that growing up wealthy teaches skills — emailing, networking, confidence — that we don’t know to call “skills.” Confidence is a skill, one of the most class-based ones around. Fashion is a skill. Rhetoric is a skill. Self-advocacy at the doctor’s office is a skill, convincing adults is a skill, speaking in class is a skill. These are all skills that Tahoe Class parents in the upper-middle class prioritize for their children, who grow up unaware of our own cultural apprenticeship. We believe, as most other Americans in the upper-middle-class do, that we’ve earned our spot, that we’ve worked harder than other people. This perspective would be laughable if it weren’t a central pillar of our university, our culture and our country.
There is a laudable, nascent sea change at Yale bringing frank discussions about financial capital to the fore. After years of activism around eliminating the student income contribution, the university has recently made moves in the right direction, announcing it will open a new Office of Undergraduate Financial Aid and provide more insurance to more students. Constricting financial flexibility of Yale’s poorest students adds unnecessary obstacles to their goals — the same financial, academic, artistic, political and, yes, class-based goals that the Tahoe Class shares. Efforts to alleviate divisions carved by differences in financial capital are steps in the right direction.
But it just isn’t enough if we don’t address the more invisible legacies of wealth at Yale. That’s the rub. The Tahoe Class does not even realize it’s the Tahoe Class — inevitably, some of you reading this column still think you’re in the middle class, despite paying full tuition and taking international vacations every year. Without a full understanding of their own leg up, members of Yale’s Tahoe Class attribute their relative success to their own merit, rather than their own luck. That’s just how the croissant crumbles.
Amelia Nierenberg is a senior in Timothy Dwight College. Her column runs on alternate Thursdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .