The Kids are Alright (But First We Need to Talk About Class, Power, and Privilege)

By Jessica Burke

(Photo by Alexandra Kotowski)

There is a certain kind of conversation that happens at SIPA which we are all probably familiar with: it is some variation of how amazing the student body is, and how we will all go on to do amazing things, and someday be heads of departments, and companies, and states themselves… While I don’t mean to dispute the real achievements and potential of the students here, I think that in light of how pervasive this conversation is, its critical that we have a discussion about the role that power, class, and privilege play in the makeup of the student body.

Clearly, merit does play an important role in why we are all here. We were admitted through a competitive admissions process and the first week of classes when everyone introduces themselves is always a lesson in humility. In spite of all this, we still need to acknowledge the role of elite universities in class formation, especially at places like SIPA where needs-based financial aid is not prioritized in any meaningful way. Bottom line is this: we need to be very careful not to confuse merit and privilege.

We live in a time when the role that socioeconomic class and different forms of privilege play is manifested in the most extreme ways; when someone can be a real, honest-to-god Neanderthal and still rise to the top ranks of political power on the wings of inherited wealth, whiteness, and toxic masculinity. Indeed, it is more clear than it has been in some time that meritocracy is a well-nurtured myth—that there is widespread confusion about the way that power works and is sociologically maintained, particularly inside liberal systems.

Taking the example of Trump, there’s a reason why he says things like, “Nobody knew healthcare could be so complicated.” He has made the mistake of equating his financial success (…let’s be real here: his mostly squandered inheritance) with his unique skills and talents as an individual, and in doing so, makes a fatal flaw in assuming that he is just as smart as everyone else, smarter even, for as we all know, he is a very stable genius. It’s painfully obvious to most of us that he is not, and indeed, that healthcare is very complicated. But he doesn’t know that, because he thinks his success is a credit to his innate competence, causing him to trust instincts that range from tragically funny to full-on tragic. As a perfect example, he recently confidently told the AP that his “natural instinct for science” led him to be skeptical of global warming.

Many of us want to write this man off as an aberration, but daddy issues aside, he is very much a product of his class and all the inherited advantages that come with it. His belief in his own exceptional status is the result of a life bent to ensure his success and the myth that that success could only be earned through merit. His idiocracy is a case and point that money and power are not necessarily the results of ability.

Now take the Ivy league universities more broadly. The popular narrative is that the Ivies are home to our most accomplished students, but they have a long history of accepting famously and tragically mediocre people who go on to hold insanely important positions of power. No one can watch the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings and walk away thinking that Yale only accepts the best and brightest. ...Or, for that matter, that only the best and the brightest make it into our most esteemed institutions.

And that is because universities are sights of class formation and consolidation—a fact which is never truer than at the most elite institutions. I think we intrinsically understand this even if it isn’t a part of our personal narrative—it’s the basic idea that after we graduate, we’ll be set. What we receive upon graduation is as much a pedigree as it is a diploma, and if we’re honest, for most of us at SIPA—particularly a SIPA that still doesn’t offer needs-based financial aid--our education is part of a longer arc of privileged social positioning.

It is true that Trump and Kavanaugh are extreme examples, both in terms of the mix of arrogance and incompetence they have shown, and in terms of the level of power they have attained; but nevertheless we should face the fact that we still live in a world ruled by many of these kinds of men: entitled, belligerent, and often cruel. Acknowledging this reality is vital so that we can think about the degree to which privilege and class will affect our own life trajectories. None of us may be the foolish, whining mediocrities that these men have proven to be, but there is still much to be gained by owning our privilege. (“Foolish, whining mediocrity” is the official sociological term for what they are, by the way, not many people know that.)

As an important aside, you can see very clearly in these cases the way that buying into that myth of meritocracy reinforces and informs the politics of these men—that belief in their own abilities has made them feel they are entitled to rule. That it is theirs by right. That, in fact, they are entitled to do whatever they want. It informs their politics of cruelty and of chauvinism, and their very apparent lack of empathy. They see what they want, and they take it. You know, they let you do anything when you’re a star.

So yes, let’s have that kind of a conversation more often, even if you don’t agree with me, especially if you don’t agree with me.