It has been over three years since I arrived at Princeton, and quite suddenly I am ready to leave. It happened on November 20—I was sitting in the balcony of Richardson Auditorium in Alexander Hall, as Princeton University President Christopher Eisgruber discussed the US Constitution with Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan. The feeling that came over me is hard to describe, but I think it was something to do with how many of the words in the previous sentence are capitalized. My impending graduation, which had once been so scary, was now officially welcome.
There was a time when I embraced all that Princeton had to offer. On November 9, 2011, The Nassau Weekly published an article called “John Paul Stevens, Disrobed.” I had not yet joined the Nass, but I recognized the author’s name (Rafael Abrahams—or “Rafi,” as I now know him) from his previous articles. I liked Rafi’s writing, but found this piece annoying.
Rafi wrote of falling asleep during a public conversation between retired Justice John Paul Stevens and then-Provost Eisgruber. He found the parts he was awake for exceptionally boring. He felt that most students who go to these bigname talks are going to avoid “a nagging feeling of guilt,” not out of genuine interest but because they feel some strange obligation to take advantage of Princeton’s opportunities.
When I read this as a bright-eyed freshman, I was horrified. The opportunity to hear a former Justice of the Supreme Freaking Court was a privilege, not an obligation. The year before I’d read a fascinating book called The Nine about the Court, so I was informed and engaged during Stevens’ talk. I didn’t appreciate Rafi making assumptions about the rest of the crowd, blaming his sleepiness on poor Justice Stevens, or construing the immense gift that Princeton had bestowed upon its undergrads as a burden.
The University has granted me access to other big names: Neil deGrasse Tyson reinvigorated my passion for science in 2011. Justice Antonin Scalia entertained and provoked with his intelligence and outrageousness in 2012. Woody Allen brought joy and laughter in 2013. Scalia’s philosophy may be abhorrent and Allen’s past might be twisted, but I found intellectual and emotional value in their talks. Although I was likely at least somewhat impressed by their celebrity, I hope the majority of this value lay in what they actually said.
Yet the figure to most excite Princeton’s campus in my time here was not a Supreme Court justice, not a movie star, not even Aaron Carter: it was the Dalai Lama. People were lining up literally out the door for the chance to get a ticket, and when the day arrived Jadwin Gym was packed, even though many students were off campus for fall break. The Dalai Lama is a less controversial figure than Scalia or Allen (at least in the States), and his message of love and humility is beautiful and pure. When asked about the talk after, I felt some pressure to heap praise on what everyone expected to be a special experience. But to be honest, I was kind of bored and, yes, struggled to stay awake. Love and humility are wonderful, but it was nothing we hadn’t all heard before.
Meanwhile, dozens of people who couldn’t gain admission stood outside the gym the whole time holding signs in support of their spiritual leader. I wish I could have given them my student ticket— it clearly would have meant a lot more to them than it did to me. Princeton reserves the best for its students, which in many ways I’m grateful for, but I’m fairly convinced we don’t deserve it. When I was younger I believed at least some of the hype about Princeton students— that we were the cream of the crop, the future, unparalleled. But I’ve now spent over three years observing us, and while we have our strengths, we also have our vices— just like anyone else.
This budding doubt in my own worthiness didn’t prevent me from snagging Kagan tickets. Stevens and Scalia had been great, and I was looking forward to my third Justice. My excitement persisted pretty much until Eisgruber and Kagan started talking. She described how she had met one on one with nearly every senator before being confirmed to the Court. Because it would have been uncouth to ask directly, they had tried to feel out her positions on the issues in more subtle ways: for example, rather than ask her thoughts on the Second Amendment, they asked whether or not she hunted.
Kagan, I realized, is somebody who once had nearly a hundred interviews with senators in which she had to sound interesting and intelligent without actually saying anything meaningful. Plus, her job deals with sensitive issues that she has to avoid taking a public stance on. She works closely with the other justices and so must speak positively about them so as to not jeapordize her personal relationships. In short, there was no room for real insight. She and Eisgruber didn’t talk about much that I hadn’t already heard from Stevens and Scalia.
The Q&A was slightly more engaging. Someone asked what her toughest decision had been, and she answered with a case on video game violence. Her instinct told her that it should be legal to ban selling violent games to minors without parent permission, but she couldn’t find a strong argument to overrule the First Amendment, and sided with her judicial mind over her moral one. This gap between what one perceives to be right and what one perceives to be constitutional is something I’ve always wondered about, and while Scalia had touched on it, this was the first concrete example I’d heard.
Someone also asked about the Court’s Ivy League bias: namely, three attended and graduated from Yale, six attended Harvard of whom five graduated there, and the sixth, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, graduated from Columbia. With Kagan back at Princeton (where she was an undergrad), it felt like the whole cycle repeating itself. The Ivy League perspective has become the most influential not because it is the most worthy, but simply because no other view is given authority. Kagan agreed this was potentially concerning, but— as former Dean of Harvard Law— she did not seem very troubled.
Ultimately, I don’t feel like I got a lot out of my third Justice. Perhaps if I hadn’t seen two others, Kagan’s talk would’ve been more noteworthy. (And perhaps the other two Justices were willing to reveal more than Kagan, Stevens because he is retired and Scalia because he is just generally irascible.) As it was, I don’t think it was worth going.
2014 also saw probably the most inspiring talk I’ve ever seen here, Cornell West’s discussion with Professors Imani Perry and Eddie Glaude on “Black Thought in a Time of Chaos.” West is a big name who shows up in the news, but he does not have the power of a judge nor the influence of a movie star. What he has is moral and rhetorical fire. West, Perry, and Glaude had something relevant and important to say to a packed McCosh 50 that was clamoring to hear it. The conversation was urgent at a time when entrenched institutional racism is finally being thrust in a historically unwilling nation’s face, refusing to be ignored or brushed aside any longer.
In contrast, the Kagan event seemed like a formality to all involved. The attention given to the stale musings of influential figures feeds an insidious cycle. Princeton feels it needs to give its students the best of the best, because that’s what it promised us. To do this, the University brings in famous elites, which suggests both that we students are uniquely worthy of interacting with such folks and that such folks are admirable role models for us students. For the Ivy Leaguers that inevitably make it to the Supreme Court, the system works. Everyone else, from the recent grads still looking for jobs to the outsiders who were told they aren’t good enough for Princeton, ends up feeling inadequate.
Not long after Kagan’s visit, Jimmy Carter came to campus. I did stop by Frist for tickets, but I was too late—and decided not to let it bother me. Just because someone is old and famous does not mean they are worth fawning over. (Also, in the interest of full disclosure, I eventually realized I had a seminar at the time of his talk.)
To be honest I am getting tired of “successful” people coming to tell us how to work within a certain framework; we miss out on all the people who took alternate paths. This is not to say that speakers representing those alternative paths are never seen at Princeton, but these smaller scale events attract significantly less attention. (The many panelists and speakers at SPEAR’s prison reform conference last spring jump to mind as highlights, but the conference was far better attended by community members than by students.)
I do not write this article simply because I want more interesting speakers. As current Nass editor Josh Leifer explored in 2013’s “Our Reactionary Monolith,” we students are encouraged to identify with the wealthy and powerful— not just through speakers but through Career Services and the regular refrain of “future leaders.” If we see ourselves as the “future helmsmen of the nation’s (currently failing) institutions,” as Josh put it, we have no incentive to think critically about these institutions. When we are constantly inundated with images of success, narrowly defined, our outlook is necessarily skewed. When we are intentionally kept unexposed to failure, we forget that the success of the few has a cost.
When I read “John Paul Stevens, Disrobed” as a freshman I was frustrated, and felt it did not represent me. When I read it as a senior I felt truth in almost every word. Princeton has given me access to the corridors of those in power in a way unparalleled almost anywhere in the world. But the ones in power aren’t always the ones worth listening to.
2 thoughts on “The Problem with Prestige”
Hi Dayton, I really enjoyed reading this article. Im an applicant for the class of 2019 and it somewhat made me question my choice to apply to the ivy-league schools. How connected are Ivy-league schools to the rest of society, really? The best and most useful resources are not always the scarcest ones, but the most relevant, down-to-earth. My question is: do you feel out of touch with the rest of society at Princeton?
Hi Michelle! Thanks for reading and best of luck with your college applications. I can’t speak for Ivy League schools generally, but there are definitely ways in which Princeton specifically is isolated from the “real world”–we don’t leave campus much, everything is opulent, etc. (We call ourselves “the orange bubble” for a reason.) That being said, if you’re aware of that going in, there are definitely ways in which you can get around that to stay more grounded. For me, this publication and especially living in a food co-op have helped keep my perspective, and I’ve heard great things about Breakout trips and other programs. But it’s something you kind of have to do consciously.
I also think there is a growing tendency on campus to challenge the “orange bubble” culture, so we may be entering an interesting time in Princeton’s history. There are certainly worthwhile things about Princeton’s academics and resources, and hearing from famous people (especially when we get to ask them questions–I’ve heard that a smaller, more interactive discussion with the Dalai Lama that followed the main lecture was much more meaningful) is not in and of itself a bad thing. There are also worthwhile things about going to a non-Ivy that is more connected to its community, I assume, though I can’t speak from experience. I guess it’s complicated–if you’re still interested, feel free to follow up in the comments, find my Facebook or email, etc. Hope this helped!