I say “they” instead of “we” when referring to the objects of Wilkinson’s wrath-which I suppose must include me-to avoid setting up the kind of adversarial language that inevitably leads to blame and defensiveness. I say it as well because, from way over here in Paris with its huge, ghettoized public universities, the whole us-versus-them of the comparatively better off American schools looks pretty moot anyway.
But perhaps I also say it to distance myself from Amherst, to create a separation from a community whose inherent qualities sometimes disturb me-as they do others. These qualities are just one reason why I decided to detach myself from that community for an entire year and to go study elsewhere, in the hopes of gaining some insight not only into the reality of the universe “out there,” but also insight into Amherst’s strange, small world. However, I remain an Amherst student, and when I hear accusations against my college, I try to defend it.
And yet what made me uncomfortable about this editorial was how much of it is true. Not the part about perpetuating negative stereotypes-if Wilkinson wants to be a lout on his own time, or even on the Daily Collegian’s, that’s fine with me-but the stereotypes themselves. Though the conscience of the administration and the attitude of society at large have made progress towards eradicating them, the facts upon which the original Amherst stereotypes were formed are far from being a thing of the past. There are still quite a few “sheltered”-rich, well-connected, privately schooled-kids walking around campus, and though most of them deserve to be where they are, the cumulative effect cannot help but strike the eye.
It certainly struck mine when I arrived at Amherst two years ago, fresh from a diverse, artsy public high school. For most of orientation, a paranoid conviction gripped me that I was living in a gigantic feeder tank full of rich kids, destined to ascend the ranks of corporate ladders in law firms, investment banks and other traditional good-old-boy establishments. This turned out not to be true, but it left me with an ambivalent feeling towards Amherst that’s been hard to shake. Call it white guilt, but I still wince inwardly when I tell people what college I go to, knowing they may well think my father either invented Post-Its or owns half of Malaysia. I realize that’s nothing, of course, compared to the psychological baggage foisted on the poor kids at Yale and Harvard � though don’t worry, they’ll all eventually earn more than enough money to pay their therapists’ bills.
If I make light of Ivy League angst, it’s not because I agree with Wilkinson that everyone at an elite college like Amherst must, by definition, be a rich, spoiled brat. His editorial cites no specific personal instances as the cause of his rather prejudicial beliefs and my own experience has taught me, to my great relief, that Amherst is not the solid blue-blood bastion that it seemed at first. But it’s the classic image of Amherst, more than any particular reality, that probably bothers Wilkinson the most-as it does me. The thought that I might be part of a system that is fundamentally unfair (and, let’s be honest, it probably is) is disturbing.
I used to rage against that system, against the theoretical rich daughters and prodigal sons whose presence was corrupting Amherst’s educational mission, until I realized the precarious hypocrisy of my own position. While most of my friends are on financial aid, my tuition is paid in full; and while I like to think I got into Amherst on my own merits, my father attended the College as well. In fact, aside from being female, my profile has the same classic, old-boy elements to it that I would love to hate-and therefore cannot, at least not automatically.
Still, knowing that Amherst is unlikely to change much in the near future, I would like to see it evolve towards greater economic diversity and an atmosphere less heavily charged with the aura of privilege and exclusiveness. In the meantime, all I or anyone else can do to respond to criticisms of Amherst, justified or not, is to try to appreciate the opportunities that education at this college makes available and to strive to be worthy of them, so that if we stay brats, at least we won’t be spoiled.