“Working-class people don’t deserve to be paid.” A group of Yale undergraduates, including myself, were at a restaurant in New Haven, when, after a few minor slip-ups by the waiters, one among us dropped this remark. I was incredulous, thinking he had to be joking. His comment did not make sense, morally or economically, and its implications were truly awful. Earlier in the evening, he had declared himself politically conservative. I don’t think such an extreme statement is representative of most conservatives. But after a few more equally shocking statements from the same person, my certainty that it was a bad joke waned.
Three weeks after that meal, I still can’t shake the discomfort those statements brought. Around the same time, I received an email advertising this year’s “Saybrook Strip” shirt designs — shirts you can buy to participate in the tradition of stripping at the Yale-Harvard football game. One design read “We put the ‘Eli’ in Elitist,” referring to the practice of calling Yalies “Elis.” Funny? Sure. A little. Distasteful? I’d say very.
There is no doubt that Yale, like other Ivy Leagues and top universities in the U.S., is an elite institution, not just in terms of intellectual elitism, but in the class makeup of its students. Yale has made genuine attempts to draw not just from the traditional elite as it used to. It has an incredibly strong promise of financial aid, and Yalies emphasize the importance of evaluating our place and privilege in New Haven through volunteer programs and regular conversation. Yale has tried to open itself up to the rest of the city while ensuring its students feel secure. Yale hasn’t quite uprooted the elitism in its student culture, but of the people I have met here, almost all are kind, generous and diverse. And graduating from Yale means that even if you started at the “bottom,” you will often come out on top.
Being at Yale sometimes feels like we exist within a liberal bubble, and hearing an opinion so starkly in contrast with that can burst this bubble and bring us back to the days when Ivy Leagues were exclusive to rich, white men. But being elite isn’t inherently a problem. There is on the one hand the intellectual elite — who sometimes but not always hold power — who are at the helm of many of the changes and ways our society is run. On the other, the elite can refer to the very rich traditional elite: inherited privilege and wealth. These two types of elite should be treated very differently.
Institutions like Yale are meant to foster the elite — the intellectual elite, that is. It is a place meant to produce the brightest young minds and the people who will herald the future for humanity. Because of this, it is less interested in being progressive by equalizing everyone and more in admitting students it considers to have the most potential. This is at the heart of its financial aid policies but explains the continuation of legacy admissions and high admission rates from U.S. “feeder schools” — since after all, more of these students are likely to have had greater learning opportunities and more polished applications. For as long as the applications and admissions process remain well-guarded, we will never know how many of the places Yale gives out are based purely on merit. And perhaps that’s beside the point.
So does it really matter what some undergraduate says or what a T-shirt reads? After all, you get these types at other top educational institutions. At least these examples of elitist behavior pale in comparison to the undergrad at Cambridge University who burned a 20 quid note under the nose of a homeless man asking for change in 2017, or more recently the blind Ghanaian student who was dragged out of the Oxford Union after attempting to reserve a seat.
These people will probably go on to graduate, get the best jobs, become members of the power elite or ruling class, possibly enter politics. They may believe that their good jobs, wealth and lifestyles are earned, because they passed through the portals of Yale through their own efforts. They may also believe that those not able to graduate from Yale (or Harvard or Cambridge or Oxford) or earn incomes as large as theirs are therefore not deserving. That is how one gets to believe that “working class people don’t deserve to be paid.” Quite possibly this attitude has been cultivated in our entitled friend since childhood, passing from one generation to the next like a hereditary disease. That’s when being part of the elite becomes elitist, and toxic.
A very insightful Yale alumnus, James Luce ’66, explored oppression in a conversation we were having about misogyny, as the tools an oppressor takes up out of fear of those they’re oppressing. If we allow this to dictate the dynamic in academic environments, we’ll end up with a large amount of very privileged students intent on protecting their privilege, and institutions that propagate exclusionary cultures while claiming to be diverse. And while there are many structures in place meant both to include (affirmative action, need-blind admissions, financial aid) and exclude (legacy admissions, acceptances based on donations), what we grapple with most immediately are the cultures of inclusivity or exclusivity we create in our student community — how we treat those around us at Yale and in New Haven.
Yale fosters the elite. But what do we want this elite to look like? How should Yale promote this ideal? Not by policing students’ language or necessarily giving into political correctness, but by teaching students more about Yale’s history and openly discussing decisions taken either by the institution or by the student community. The answer isn’t readily apparent, but we can begin by asking ourselves what we’d like to see; thinking about our position as students in New Haven and not just Yale; and applying the golden rule: treat others how you’d like to be treated.
MIRANDA JEYARETNAM is a first year in Pierson College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .