The latest viral Facebook post among Stanford students is a blow to the head for not only the incoming freshmen but all of us who, in one definition or another, have in some way been the beneficiaries of privilege. “You don’t deserve to be here” was Kevin Carey’s conclusion after attending the freshman convocation a few weeks ago.
Having bumped into one too many BMWs on Palm Drive, Carey was convinced the acceptance letter was not earned. After all, it is a known fact that if you throw enough luxury items on a baby (and you, freshmen, have all been there), he or she will eventually become a NASA scientist.
While Carey seems to ignore that some students were not born in silken diapers, his arguments are flawed even when targeted at the students from wealthy households.
It is certainly true that if the tortoise and the hare reach the finish line at the same time, the tortoise is the worthy of greater admiration; but denying merit from our well-born students is eating the cake and having it too.
Their relative advantage is already taken into consideration in the admission process. At an acceptance rate of 5.7 percent, the golden cradle babies still had to beat all their equally privileged classmates. They had to be comparatively, not absolutely, impressive. Stanford students are remarkable even when their starting point is taken into account.
Sure, financial aid is limited and does not provide for complete equality. I wish it were different. What I cannot accept is denying any merit whatsoever to those that were involuntarily born in a wealthy family, and suggesting they have a larger moral obligation to give back to others.
It is as if they were presented with Christ’s last temptation at the exit of the womb: you can have this kingdom, but you must forfeit your own dreams and instead fix all these problems that you didn’t create.
Of course, I am not condoning lack of consideration for others’ less fortunate conditions. There are ways to soften inequality without yielding to a misplaced guilt. We can ameliorate societal inequalities by, for example, agreeing to pay higher taxes in order to improve medical conditions for the not-so-lucky (hi, Tea Party!). On the other hand, forcing the elite into a path of self-denial is revoking any of their personal inclinations or desires for the arbitrary fact of their privilege.
At the cost of sounding pretentious (aren’t we all at Stanford?), I cite a favorite passage from Kant:
“[… T]here arises in many persons, if only they are candid enough to admit it, a certain degree of misology, hatred of reason. This is particularly the case with those who are most experienced in its use. After counting all the advantages […], they nevertheless find that they have actually brought more trouble on their shoulders instead of gaining in happiness; they finally envy, rather than despise, the common run of men who are better guided by mere natural instinct on their conduct.”
Haven’t we all raised our head from our problem sets and begrudged that lonely cat sunbathing on the lawn outside the window, void of responsibilities?
Kant speaks of the burden of knowledge, not wealth, which raises another problem: in Carey’s eyes, we will only deserve what we so far haven’t when we finally come back and share our service with our children and peers.
Some of us, however, will not and should not follow that path. In addition to providing excellent opportunities for service, Stanford also amasses some of the greatest minds in the world who are concerned with highly theoretical and intangible problems. They think about questions never before resolved, in any civilization.
While service to others is valued, Stanford also accepts some youngsters that achieved success by serving themselves. They served themselves so much that they became the best at something highly irrelevant for most of the world, yet vital for their personal satisfaction. And they are so uniquely good that they really should be investing all their time on themselves and their vain pursuits.
Service is not the only road to merit, and being born in a pot of gold does not render one’s achievements infinitely worthless, especially if those achievements are not at the expense of others. The way to bridge the opportunity gap is not to diminish the top, but rather to empower the bottom.