The Elite Student’s Struggle for Integrity

Taking inspiration from James Baldwin’s 1963 talk “The Artist's Struggle for Integrity,” contributing writer Zane Khiry ’25 urges students to pursue fulfillment amid the pull of conventional notions of success.

“History is a graveyard of classes which have preferred caste privilege to leadership.”

— E. Digby Baltzell

I’d like to start my argument with a single proposition: Every human being will, at some time or another, find themselves in a particular social context in which they must be courageous in pursuit of their own humanity. The farmer must choose to ethically raise his crops, even against the lure of higher profit. The politician must, with conviction, rise above the downward pull of greed and corruption in pursuit of justice. And we, the nation’s academic elite, must choose between the conventional trappings of success, on the one hand, and fulfillment, on the other.

If you’re anything like me, you spent the majority of your youth slowly moving toward the edge of the world. You performed. You competed. You excelled. But still, perhaps terrifyingly, you did not belong. You felt not unlike an orphan standing at society’s door, waiting anxiously to be let in. Then you got into Amherst, or Brown, or any other elite school for that matter, and suddenly the world was at your door, this time bearing gifts. It says to you, “Well look at that. Amherst! You made it, kid,” and proceeds to offer you all the status and wealth you could reasonably ask for. And who are we, we feel after a lifetime in exile, to say no to the world as it welcomes us with its deceptively open arms — the same way that storied witch welcomed Hansel and Gretel? What we do not see, at the precious age of 18 or 19 or 22, are the fangs lying behind society’s smile — that it does not have our best intentions at heart. What we do not see, to put it plainly, is that the world nourishes us only to then swallow us whole.

To put it all in concrete terms, I mean to say that we — and this is through no fault of our own — are blinded to the consequences of moving through elite pipelines. What we lose when we choose to go to law school, or medical school, or take a job at Goldman Sachs, simply because it is the path of least resistance, is often never articulated to us, but it is nothing less than a life worth living — a life of integrity, of humanity — a life of our own choosing.

It can seem as though the entire system that gets us into elite higher education, and which propels us forward into the pipeline professions, is designed to stop us from building our true selves. It is fundamentally conformist — and this is evidenced by the way many of us spent our high school, and still, perhaps, are spending our college years. We resumé pad, we grade grub, and we achievement hunt. We are told constantly, and begin to believe ourselves, that this makes us extraordinary. But conformity does not cease to be conformity simply because one is conforming to elite standards. The trouble, which still remains, is that these standards are not our own. They are Amherst’s. They are our parents’. They are McKinsey’s. But terrifyingly still, they are not ours.

Life itself is nothing less than a continuous process not of self-discovery, but of self-making. It is a process of creating one’s own set of standards, and living by them — growing ever more conscious, loving, and critical along the way. This, to me, is the fundamental human task. Society, then, seems to be one big conspiracy against the realization of our humanity — and this is, perhaps, especially true of our elite colleges. They corral us and funnel us into the most profitable, but often least fulfilling, professions. They advise us to be neglectful of the process of self-making in pursuit of wealth and status. It is, as one student at Yale put it, “stifling to the parts of yourself you’d call a soul.”

I mentioned firstly that every human being finds themselves in a particular social context which demands that they be courageous in pursuit of their own humanity. I’d like to remind us that this, as the academic elite and perhaps the future leaders of our nation, is ours: to choose lives of our own amid the pull of elite convention.

A Stanford student once posed a brilliant question. She asked: “What are the hidden incentives that are shaping the ways we dream?” It is high time we uncover these hidden incentives, and seek to change them, so that they no longer have power over us. What’s at stake here is nothing less than a life worth living.