Last week, I came across a thought-provoking article: “The Real Problem at Yale is Not Free Speech,” by Natalia Dashan, published in Palladium. While the article obviously deals with the author’s experiences and observations at Yale, I believe you could replace most of the occurrences of the word Yale with Williams and have an observation that, for me, remains true.

The article is not so much, in my opinion, coming down one way or another on the “free speech debate.” Rather, it’s a look at the same issues said debate takes up through a slightly different paradigm, one that rings more true to my own experiences at Williams than the paradigm of “free speech” ever did. The article’s thesis is this:

Student at “elite” colleges are increasingly rejecting the role of  becoming “the elite,” with all of the privileges and responsibilities that being in the elite comes with. Instead, students frame themselves as underdogs and fighting against the elite. The elite colleges themselves follow suit, purporting to be in line with the students in taking down an oppressive system that they are, inherently, representatives of, causing an identity crisis for colleges today. The result is “controversies about free speech” that are, at heart, more precisely rooted in powerful students at powerful universities presenting themselves as devoid of power.

Phew! If I presented that as a thesis of a paper for class, I’d probably get called out for some much-needed revision. But, the article is a hefty 10,000+ word piece, and it’s worth considering. I do recommend reading it in full, because I’ll be not always reconstructing the arguments as much as pulling out salient bits and considering how they apply to Williams. This week, I’ll look at the first half of the article: the phenomenon of how students present themselves as devoid of power, and why. Next week, I’ll look at the second half, of how that manifests in the “controversies” plaguing Yale/Williams.

A final note: I personally don’t agree with everything in this article. Though I think Ms. Dashan did a great job in terms of it being a feat of long-form publication, it is a bit all over the place, with some points tying into her argument less clearly than others. In other cases, my disagreements might come just from Williams being a different place than Yale. I’m certainly curious to hear everyone else’s thoughts.

After the break, Part One!

The article begins with the anecdote of Ms. Dashan meeting one of her classmates who appears skeletal and starving. She comes from a genuinely poor background, being in the bottom 2% of Yale’s family income distribution, so she believes the classmate is a kindred spirit in need, and insists on buying him a sandwich. The student replies:

“You know I have a trust fund, right? I can buy my own sandwich if I wanted it.”

This is the moment when after three years of friendship, Marcus sat down and told me his life story. His cottages in Norway. Sneaking into the family study. Learning about the cost of hardwoods and hearing his boorish, critical father sulk in 5-star hotel rooms.

Marcus did not act this way out of anxiety, grief, stress, or because he had nobody to tell him his habits will kill him. He lived as a starving writer not out of necessity, but for the aesthetic. Out of some desire to imitate the Bohemian 19th century writers. Out of artistry. Style. Intentional choice.

I don’t think that I was friends with anyone quite as obnoxious as Marcus at Williams, but it’s a near thing. I did spend time in artsy circles, and though none of my friends smoked three packs a day as a quirky bohemian affectation, many of them did enjoy things like wearing the same set of clothes and smelling really bad, or never wearing shoes, ostensibly for the aesthetic. Still, maybe I’m misremembering, because I don’t for a second doubt that Marcus is real and dressed as he did, and I can see him fitting right in at Williams.

Ms. Dashan generalizes from the anecdote:

Based on statistics from the class of 2013, approximately 2% of students hailed from the lowest income quintile, while 69% came from the top 20%. How did those poor students fare after graduation? Around 2% of students at Yale move from the bottom to the top quintile. In other words, nearly all of them. You show up poor, and you leave rich. Going to an Ivy League school may be the fastest way to join the upper class.

But this low number of 2% surprised me because when I was at Yale, everybody kept talking about how broke they were.

“Want to go out for brunch?” “I can’t—I’m so broke.” This was a common line. Sometimes the conversations had a more accusatory tone. “Wow, you took a taxi to the airport? I always take the subway.”

Poor people—actually poor people—don’t talk this way. They tend to stay under the radar because they don’t know the rules of the game. But I bought it—at least when I was a freshman. If they were constantly announcing how broke they were, my assumption was that they must have even less money than I do.

Though not as poor as Ms. Dashan’s family, I came from the same perspective. If anything, I’m even more in denial about the reality of Williams students’ socioeconomic backgrounds. Growing up, I always knew I’d go to college, but I always knew I’d be on substantial financial aid; the idea of my family making enough money to pay full price, even with loans, was never even a possibility I considered. It’s naive, but it was a bit hard to conceptualize that many others at Williams were not, in fact, just like me, and that less than half were on any form of financial aid at all, even with Williams being so generous with it.

The New York Times gives the statistics for Williams from 2017, which are somewhat similar to those at Yale:

5.3% of Williams students are in the lowest income quintile. 67% come from the top quintile. Intriguingly and worryingly, less than 1% of students move from the lowest income quintile to the highest, so very far from the “nearly all of them” Ms. Dashan claims for Yale. Only 9.3% move up two or more quintiles at all, regardless of starting quintile, so there doesn’t seem to be much mobility at all for students coming from the bottom quintiles. Why do we think that is?

Regardless of the mobility numbers, though, the raw numbers for starting family income are similar enough. And more to the point, Ms. Dashan’s claim about it feeling like far more people are poor than really are rings true for me.

It feels totally wrong, in some ways, to signal wealth, or at least to seem comfortable in it. When I read this section of Ms. Dashan’s article, my immediate recollection was trying to finagle something for a club that meant someone had to pay a small amount of money (something like $30) upfront before getting reimbursed from our club’s fund. No one immediately offered, but more than a few people wanted to make very clear that they could not do it, saying, “I literally have two dollars in my bank account right now!!” I paid, and felt, somehow, like the bad guy in the situation, for having money in my checking account. But I worked a job on campus, so why wouldn’t I? And anyway, it felt disingenuous–sure, maybe you literally have two dollars in your bank account, because you have bad spending habits, and I have more. But the difference is that you can go to your parents to get more if you want, and I could not; what I had in my bank account was what I had.

Beyond that, I remember just a lot of posturing, similar to what Ms. Dashan says, about not going out to eat, or adamantly only wearing thrifted clothes for the aesthetic, or similar things. It was a form of virtue signaling, to be sure.

On the surface, there is nothing wrong with haphazard and sometimes warped class signaling. But if you put on a façade for long enough, you end up forgetting that it is a façade. The rich and powerful actually start believing that they are neither of those things. They actually start believing that there is not much difference in status and resources between themselves and the upper-middle class, the middle class—and eventually, between themselves and the actual poor. They forget that they have certain privileges and duties that others do not. They forget that the inside joke was just a joke all along.

Is this true? I’m not sure. I don’t know that I knew enough actually wealthy students to be able to say. That itself, to me, is a weird reflection; based simply on the statistics, I must have known at least a few. But no one “acted rich,” which seems like a good thing. As Whitney and others mentioned in her post earlier this week, differences in wealth really don’t seem to matter too much when it comes to day-to-day life on campus. In a comment on that post, David wrote, “Williams is, and should be, a basically communist society — everyone lives in the same dorms, eats the same food, goes to the same classes — so the effect that household problems (whether of poverty, illness, death, divorce, etc) is as small as one could possibly make it.”

Yet even if this is the case–because I largely do believe that quality of life, opportunities, etc. aren’t so different regardless of wealth–there’s the truth of how people live at Williams, and how people behave. And though I do think it’s probably easier at Yale because, in a more urban environment, there are a lot more ways to signal wealth–or to purposely try to signal a lack thereof–I do think that the subtly yet definite message many Williams students feel is, “It’s better to signal poverty than wealth.” In the communist society where you shouldn’t have to signal either, students will try to convey that they are not as rich as others, that they are at the very least below-average.

The question is why there would be this pervasive feeling that it’s for some reason better to pretend to be poor than to own one’s status. Ms. Dashan says this:

For some people, this isn’t an act; they actually believe this. After all, they do seem poor when compared to the hyper-rich. They can’t afford spontaneous Spring Break trips to private Bali islands. They see their prep-school classmates’ Facebook photos and realize that they are one, or maybe two, pegs down from that, and so they use the term “upper-middle class” without really knowing what this term refers to. They have no idea how the actual upper-middle class, the middle class, or the poor really live.

There is another reason why people might pretend to be poor. This reason is much more serious than fitting in or avoiding hitmen. The rich and powerful are expected to take responsibility for things, and blamed when they go wrong.

“Check your privilege.” Just about every college student has heard this phrase since 2013. What it means is evasive. But like most memes that strike a chord with people—there is some point to it. The rich have privileges. They therefore also have responsibilities. The responsibilities are not always so fun.

The elite are expected—by everyone else, and by each other—to use their power to make sure society works properly. That is, they are expected to rule benevolently. The reason they are expected to do this is that if they don’t, nobody else can or will. The middle class and the poor do not have the powers and privileges that the rich and elite do, and cannot afford the necessary personal risks. But without active correction towards health and order, society fails.

The younger generations, who don’t necessarily see the full shape of elite dysfunction, can still tell that now is not a comfortable time to be a rich and powerful elite. Too much expectation, and no good examples to be seen of what to do with that expectation. Better to present themselves as just another member of the “upper middle class,” or even an underdog.

I’m used to calling Williams an “elite college.” But calling anyone in my class “elite” just feels laughably wrong. Thinking of us as future “rulers” of any sort feels absolutely off, because none of us acted like we were. It didn’t feel like we were there to “make sure society works properly,” to “rule benevolently,” to, as Ms. Dashan says later, “play no small part in running the world.” We were there for–well, I’m actually not sure. To get jobs, I guess? We chose to go to Williams for opportunity and prestige, but now that we’ve just graduated, it feels like we’re all barely scraping by. Even if that’s just, objectively, not the case; many of us have jobs that pay a good amount of money, or are going on for further study, and whatnot. But I think few of us would say that we have become elites because of Williams. As a whole, I think we do feel, in some ways like “underdogs,” like we’re just barely making it. Whether that’s truly the face or a facade varies from student to student.

From a bit later in the article:

Yale students, if they weren’t powerful when they came in (and most of them were), they gain power by being bestowed a Yale degree. What would you do with this power? You don’t want to abuse it; you’re not outright evil. No, you want something different. You want to be absolved of your power. You are ashamed of your power. Why should you have it, and not somebody else—maybe somebody more deserving? You never really signed up for this. You would rather be somebody normal. But not, “normal,” normal. More like normal with options and vacations and money “normal.” Normal but still powerful. Or you want to be something even better than normal. You want to be the underdog. There is always a certain strange sense of pleasure in being an underdog. Expectations are lower. Whenever you accomplish anything at all—it is an accomplishment. You would rather have a narrative story of “coming up from the bottom.” Someone who not only does not have the responsibility of power, but someone who has a right to feel resentful of those who do. And better yet—someone who can use this resentment as a tool for self-interest.

That’s where it feels like we’ve all positioned ourselves, right out of graduation–the underdogs. The fact that we made it out at all is an accomplishment. One part of this that I don’t think Ms. Dashan brings in is that the media paints a certain picture of what it means to be a “millennial student,” and we are, some of us, the very tail end of millennials. The millennial student is plagued with student debt, is getting degrees that don’t end up making them money, has been screwed over by the economy and academia and employers. We feel that anxiety, we relate to that, and so by graduating, by getting whatever jobs we can, we feel like we’re accomplishing something huge.

Whether that’s true of the students in America at large or not, Williams is different. If 67% of Williams students came into Williams from the top quintile, how could it possibly be? Ms. Dashan is right to call out this discomfiting clash of ideas–that so many of us could come in with the power bestowed by family money, and yet somehow come out powerless.

I’d love to hear what others think of these ideas, if they’re salient and apply to Williams at all, or if, having read Ms. Dashan’s article in full, you disagree with what I’m pulling from it.

Next week: how this notion of facades and rejecting power and elitism ties into controversies about free speech!

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