Brooks’ “Organization Kid.” That one NYT Magazine article that produced the college essay contest. That dude from Yale who couldn’t talk to his plumber. These articles about the country’s elite universities and the kids who attend them (the first two articles are about Princeton and UChicago, respectively). I know that when these articles came out, they provoked a lot of conversation among their subjects, those kids of privilege whose lives are on track from the best high schools to the best colleges to the best jobs, not stopping to look around, so overscheduled, so grade-obsessed, so politically moderate and so shallow. That portrayal is what provokes the outrage, anyway, among the Ivy League kids who read these articles. “I’m not like that!” they say.
I said that too, to all three articles. “The Organization Kid” was published in the Atlantic Monthly in 2001, when I was 11, but I read it some years later, when I was in high school. And when the NYT Magazine article came out in 2007, and William Deresiewicz and his plumber in 2008, I was still in high school, and I was applying to those colleges. As I applied to Princeton, UChicago, and Yale (among other places) and eventually came to choose Princeton, I hated these articles. They were so unfair, so one-sided, so unreasonably polemic. I dismissed them angrily, as the age-old phenomenon of the older generation unilaterally decrying the younger.
We read “The Organization Kid” in one of my classes at Princeton last semester, and I had occasion to go back and re-read the other two articles today. And after a semester and a half right in the center of the phenomena all three authors are talking about, I find that my knee-jerk reactions are very different. Instead of saying “Those colleges aren’t like that,” I find myself saying, “I’m not like that. Don’t lump me into your judgment of what Ivy League kids are like. I’m different.”
It’s a stupid reaction, isn’t it? It’s a perfectly egotistical reaction, exactly the one that one of those self-centered and spoiled brats would have. Maybe the Ivy League is working its evil spell on me, changing me so that I am one of Brooks’ overscheduled kids, Perlstein’s apathetic kids who aren’t like yesterday’s UChicago students, or Deresiewicz’s grade-grubbing, careerist kids, and maybe it’s closing my mind and my sense of perspective so much that I can’t see how these words of warning apply to me. But yeah: when we read “Organization Kid” in my freshman seminar last semester, and kids were saying how they didn’t think it was a valid assessment of Princeton culture at all, I found myself thinking “Are you blind? Have you not eavesdropped in the dining hall during weekday lunchtimes, or done the same in the eating clubs on Saturday nights? Aren’t you aware of the people around you—and indeed yourselves?” And then I am so insulted to see myself, as an Ivy League student, lumped in with Deresiewicz’s derision. I am not a grade-grubber (as I’ve said before); I don’t consider myself entitled. I went to an average public school and I know some great plumbers with interesting things to say. And I am also downright furious to read Deresiewicz characterize legacies (the children of alumni) as people “who aren’t up to standard to begin with.” Yes, technically speaking, I am a legacy at Princeton. But I went through way too much self-doubt because of it last semester to sit here now and be told that I’m not up to standard. I know that I’m qualified to be at Princeton and I know that I’m benefiting from the education in every conceivable way. Deresiewicz has no right to brand me with that iron, if that’s the metaphor. I’m sure it’s not. (But my legacy status can’t be blamed for my ineptitude with metaphors.)
Well. I meant for this to be a coherent essay, and I think it kind of got off-track. It’s quite a bit later in the day than when I started writing it, and I’m very tired and burned out. But I can tell that my life in the Ivy League is going to be a very long and winding road indeed. If my academic ambitions stay consistent, I could remain in the Ivy League for the rest of my life. But yes, I will keep my soul and my personality; yes, I will still get on quite well, thank you, with tradespeople; and yes, the radical fire still burns within me. So I’m going to stay true to form and keep blogging about why columnists are wrong about who I am. Oh hey, and if there are any columnists out there reading—next time you want to write an Ivy League article, pretty-please hit me up for an interview?