Phillipian Commentary: Speaking for the Rest

Two weeks ago at All-School Meeting (ASM), when Nadya Okamoto took the stage and spoke, I heard groans and laughs from across the audience. Not because of her message or activism or casual speaking style, but because she went to Harvard. In this past ASM, when Barbara Bush mentioned Yale, the situation was no different. In a school unhealthily obsessed with a narrow range of colleges and universities, where matriculation into one of them is equated with success, the administration’s choice of ASM speakers reinforces and encourages this toxic culture.

The exasperated whispers of “…really? Again?” and “How many times will she say Harvard?” are not exclusive to Ms. Okamoto’s ASM speech. This year, at the Alumni Awards of Distinction, all three alumni attended Ivy League schools. Additionally, ASM speakers Hakeem Rahim and Reza Aslan both went to Harvard. Julie Lythcott-Haims and Angela Duckworth, who came for external talks not given at ASM, count between the two of them degrees from Stanford, Harvard, Oxford, and the University of Pennsylvania. Bringing in people who attended these schools is not in and of itself a negative thing—it reflects well on the administration’s attempts to bring impressive and engaging speakers to campus. Many incredibly successful people attended an Ivy or a similar institution; it’s part of why they are considered so elite. Nadya Okamoto’s message and charity, both of which are powerful and important, are certainly part of why she is at Harvard in the first place. But even still, major issues arise when the choice of speakers is taken in the full context of how our student culture views college.

From day one, we are taught here—both explicitly and implicitly—to view a certain set of colleges as the end goal. As soon as I was accepted into Andover, the mother of one of my middle school friends said “Congratulations! They have such good matriculation, you’re so lucky.” I have heard people anxiously discuss club board positions they’re applying for explicitly in reference to how the positions will help their college application. Oftentimes it’s in a joking manner, but the nugget of truth remains—that a certain set of colleges is the end goal, what years of tests and extracurriculars and essays build up to. The most blatant example involving an ASM would be earlier in the year with Hakeem Rahim, where his introduction included the line “He went to Harvard!”, emphasis apparent. One only needed to look at the Senior class in the weeks leading up to specific college decision releases to see how the process at Andover affects the student body, to say nothing of the anxious Uppers waiting in the wings. I wonder, sometimes, how many people only decided to attend Andover because of the college placement. I wonder if I would’ve myself; it feels somewhat hypocritical to be writing this article because I’ve bought into the culture, too.

This isn’t necessarily an Andover-specific issue. It’s present in our culture at large, especially that of cushy, privileged, predominantly white social circles where parents flaunt their children’s education as a measure of status—the social circles I’ve grown up in. The recent college admissions scandal, which implicated coaches, admissions officers, and wealthy parents (along with their sometimes-ignorant children), should be evidence enough of this. But it finds itself particularly relevant in a school where 30 percent of each graduating class attends one of these colleges, and which historically was a “Yale feeder.” We forget how bafflingly privileged we are, how our “safeties” or “likelies” are amazing schools in their own right, to say nothing of those we don’t even look at.

I believe that making a concerted effort to find and bring ASM speakers who particularly didn’t attend an Ivy or a similar institution can help address, in my opinion, what remains one of this campus’ most insidious and under-addressed misconceptions. It will not combat the issue at its root, but I seriously doubt there is anything that can. What it will do, though, is remind the student body that correlation is not causation, that success is not linear, that your college of choice does not dictate your future or past achievements. I want to hear from speakers who found alternate methods of success and are proud of it, not just from those who have attended bastions of elite intellectualism and privilege, regardless of their individual merit. Maybe the reason I remember so many speakers from Harvard or Yale is because those are the people that mention their colleges. If so, I want people who are just as proud of, for example, California State University, Los Angeles, or SUNY-Stony Brook, which rank among the top colleges regarding upward mobility for low-income students. Not “unique perspectives that also happened to attend one of twenty institutions,” but those who truly have found their own path to greatness. They’re certainly out there—I won’t buy it that another Harvard professor or graduate is the best the administration can find

Quinn Robinson is a four-year Senior from Wellesley, Mass. Contact qrobinson@