new Things I Ate in Cambodia: Really, Us Spoiled Upper Middle Class Kids Will Be Just Fine

Monday, July 21, 2008

Really, Us Spoiled Upper Middle Class Kids Will Be Just Fine

I am 19 years old. I just went through a rather unpleasant transfer process from my previous college to another. With an eye toward staying in California, I applied to four UC campuses and a few state schools, as well as Claremont Mckenna. I won't go into boring detail, but at one point, I had been accepted nowhere due to one untransferrable (and required) math class, and things were looking pretty grim. According to the media, I was another good student caught up in the "bubble": a record breaking number of qualified kids seeking admission to the same handful of elite schools. Had a great injustice been done to me?

I take a pretty keen interest in college news, and of late, I've noticed a whole lot of handwringing over the competitive storm that has swept over America's elite and not-so-elite campuses. Harvard is accepting basically no one, including baby Nobel Prize winners and valedictorian quadriplegics with big sad eyes. Same goes for the other Ivies, and things aren't looking much better at the UC campuses, Stanford, or any of the other big name schools. Even schools that were formerly considered backwaters are now seeing hordes of applicants and cutthroat competition. Kids that would in the past be considered young Future Captains of Industry are being left out in the cold or even being forced to go to community college.

What's a soccer mom to do to get her decidedly Above Average little Blaire or Taylor into an Ivy League school? (Another aspect of my generation: we are unable to do anything for ourselves, being transformed into compliant video game playing rag dolls by our very loving parents. But at least we have plenty of Self Esteem!)

Seems to me that this situation is a symptom of something good: more kids are getting the chance to apply competitively to America's very best schools. Back in the good old days Cyndie Q. Soccer Mom laments, nowhere near as many kids had the option of going to those elite schools. Kids from crap backgrounds or with blase parents or recent immigrants or what have you languished and never even got a chance to go near that there IvoryTower. Our education system may still be a mess, but it's achieved good things: we are producing more and more kids who are capable of meeting the challenges top instutions produce. As college admissions counselors frequently note, kids are often picked for entry to top schools more on chance as much as anything else - many rejected kids are just as capable of performing the work as those that are admitted.

I think it's a good thing to give a leg up to kids from tough backgrounds. I think it's a damn good thing. A kid from the ghetto or the country who will be the first in her family to attend college needs that elite education a lot more then a privleged child of suburbia like myself does. If I don't go to an elite school, it doesn't matter much: I still have access to connections, support, and a nice financial cushion in case I mess up. To someone hailing from a tough background without these perks, a high-caliber education at a "name" school could mean a lot.

I also hope that this nasty little reality check will finally snap America's middle class out of the notion that a good education may only be obtained at a handful of institutions that People Will Know About. Being able to wave around a diploma from a fancy institution may make you feel more like a man or deeply intimidate your irritating next door neighbors, but it actually doesn't count for much in the corporate world. Thankfully, the business world still relies (mostly) on one's performance and ability, more then it does on who you were drinking buddies with at a big fancy school. (There is of course a powerful network encompassing graduates of Ivy League schools, but it is certainly not the only path to success.)

Finally, my generation has been overprotected, coddled, and reassured to an extent I believe unequal in American history. We have been told throughout our lives that we can achieve anything if we work hard enough and that we are special and perfect and wonderful no matter what we do, leading many of us to hold onto a deluded fantasy that we really are all of these things. When the rejection letters start coming in and reality sets in, we are absolutely devastated. This can only be good for us. We cannot have whatever we want whenever we want it, and sometimes no matter how hard you work, the world will still kick your ass. These are lessons we need to learn.

The "bubble" may cause America to realize that small and less well known institutions can deliver an excellent education (and a more personalized experience) then many big and famous schools can, that little Blaire will not be a life-long failure because she didn't go to a school with a lot of pretty Ivy on the walls. America, thankfully, has a large number of excellent if little known institutions that turning out smart and happy students: they will survive and succeed and will (astonishingly) suffer little ill effects from being denied their Ivy birthright. Perhaps my teenage brethren will even realize that kissing ass and systematically whipping themselves into perfection to enter a Name School just aint' worth it - maybe we'll start living a little again, instead of keeping up our unfortunate reputation as America's least rebellious generation since WWII. We can only hope.

As for me? I got very lucky. I applied to Tulane University at the very last minute, filling out my application online from a blinking internet terminal in Bangalore, not really expecting to be accepted. To my surprise, Tulane admitted me. I was even more surprised when Tulane sent me a letter to inform me that I had been awarded a not-inconsiderable scholarship on the basis of God Knows What. I'm not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, and now I'm extremely happy to be going to New Orleans: land of my ancestors, cultural mecca, America's delightfully third world city. Tulane has been knocked around a lot in recent years but it's making a brave effort to get up on its feet again, along with the rest of the city: I'm happy I'll be around to see it happen. (And eat oysters.)

In the end, I did get admitted to a nice school, one that people might even know about - but I do believe those weeks in India where I was simultaneously enjoying myself in the Sunny Climes and confronting a possible admission-less reality taught me something important: college isn't everything, and attending a famous institution is even less important. There are a hell of a lot of ways to get where you want to go - Harvard is by no means the only path to happiness or success or money or what have you. Community college, vocational school, the local state institution, lighting out on your own: those all work too. My generation will figure that out in the course of their lives, just like I did.

Seriously. We'll be fine.

1 comment:

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