Even Princeton

It so happens that the very night Occupy Princeton mic checked J.P. Morgan, I myself was talking about Princeton—or, more specifically, avoiding talking about Princeton.  A cohort-mate introduced me to one of her friends, and she asked me where I went to school before Berkeley.  As per usual, I mumbled something about Central New Jersey.and attempted to change the subject.  My friend wasn’t having it, though: “He went to Princeton”, she said.

My secret out, I offered my stock derision of my alma mater.  Did you know that there are eating clubs where you have to do ten interviews for admission, in a process that’s actually called “bicker”?  Have you heard about how Princeton got sued because so many of the students from its school for public policy went to work for hedge funds?  Or that upper-classmen put on double-popped collars, play croquet, and smoke cigars outside the site where newly admit pre-frosh congregate, just so incoming students start off with the right impression?  The implicit message, as always, was that if she thinks Princeton students are a bunch of over-privileged douchebags, she’s probably right.

The funny thing, though, is that I myself don’t even believe the stereotypes I’m conveying.  When I think of Princeton, I don’t think about eating clubs or polo shirts.  In my mind, “Princeton” is the professor who came into my first class freshman year and announced she had been kicked out of the prison system for teaching Marxism, the misfits who welcomed me into the marching band, and the young activists who strong-armed me into going vegan my sophomore year.  When I sing “In Praise of Old Nassau”, I mean it: it’s just that I’m thinking about the group of upperclassmen who took me to punk shows in Asbury Park when I was a lonely freshman, the old alumni who decided to give a scholarship to a kid who spent his hour long interview talking about anarchism, and the sociology professor who told me to follow my passions into a dumpster.

There are, of course, people at Princeton who are assholes from the second they set foot on campus.  But I truly believe, as Occupy Princeton said in their mic check, that most Princeton students don’t come to campus wanting to work for Goldman Sachs.  A significant minority, like me, arrive completely unaware of Princeton’s reputation as “the country club of the Ivy League.”  By the time we get to Princeton, though, most of us are hardwired to constantly look for the most exclusive eating club, the most selective major, and the most prestigious job.  The sad fact is, if you’re a Princeton freshman looking for role models, the most successful people you see are the ones going into finance.

And so Princeton’s reputation for elitism becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  The people who have no qualms about turning a half-million dollar education into a six-figure salary are also the people who are oblivious enough to wear Princeton on their sleeve.  The rest of us are afraid to associate ourselves with a name that others have made synonymous with greed and exclusivity, filled with guilt about the benefits we have accrued from a place we claim to hate.  The progressive alumni keep away from reunions, and by extension, each other: after all, it would be a bit incongruous if we expended much effort on a community that we are constantly bitching about.  The result is that a minority—and yes, it really is a minority—of Princeton students get to define what Princeton is to most of the world, and, in so doing, control the meaning of one of the most momentous four-year-periods of our lives.

Don’t get me wrong: Princeton has an awful history.  There is an important conversation to be had about whether Princeton should exist at all—if there really is a place in our society for such a lavish educational experience while public education is being cut to the bone.  But so long as Princeton does exist, those of us who have benefited from it ought to be able to have an open debate about how we can best use that privilege.  But before that can even happen, we need to challenge the basic narrative—that many of us alumni are ourselves perpetuating—that Princeton is an unredeemable, reactionary hell hole.

I’m glad that Occupy Princeton directed their message at the banks: their action had incredible power because, as so many media outlets seemed to say, even Princeton seems to be waking up.  But for me personally, the message they conveyed was one I’ve yet to find the courage to say:

Mic Check! /

We at Princeton /

Are not all assholes /

Some of us /

Are just twenty-somethings /

Who got lucky /

And are trying to figure out /

How to do some good

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5 thoughts on “Even Princeton

  1. In 1970, we at PU closed the campus to protest the VN War, and the admin delayed all requirements so students could campaign during election. It was a psychedelic, very radical window of vitality. It set a small group of students’ lives /careers in motion, including mine , in reforming youth incarceration and psychiatric care and consciousness studies…we closed the Inst for Defense Analysis war computers, handed in draft cards (kept secure for us by the U admin), ROTC was removed from campus,and more….

    1. It’s so good to hear from people like you! I know that Princeton has had elements of radicalism in the past, but current students almost never hear about it – I wish there were a way to get stories like yours out there, so people realize Princeton has not always been just a bastion of privilege.

      Any interest in signing our letter? It’d be great to get alums from some other classes.

  2. Oh Alex, I love this. It rings so very true. (And, I might add, it’s a good Yuletide message!)

    I’m a legacy whose bitter leftist mother has never been to a Reunions or given Princeton a dime and has complained about her ten years spent in the Orange Bubble all my life. Yet my mom knew–long before I did–that Princeton, for all its flaws, was the place that would give me a world-class education and help me to grow intellectually and emotionally beyond my wildest dreams. It’s this perverse kind of school spirit that makes both my mother and me believe: a) that there are many Princetons, and that among all the ones that cater to the popped-collar preppies and TI bros and i-banking tools, there’s one for lovers of wisdom and seekers of good; and b) that all these many Princetons, with all their many Princetonians, can defy their stereotypes and change for the better.

    When Shirley T. said her piece about green hair, she didn’t really mean the mohawk, I don’t think. Instead she meant this kind of honest searching and spirit of self-criticism and self-improvement, and awareness of what it means to live one’s early twenties to their fullest.

    1. Thanks Emily! Great to see such unequivocally positive feedback. I worry that this kind of thing reads a bit whiny, like “I went to a really nice school and now I have white liberal guilt over it”, but I do think that our Princeton experiences are more complex than that. The best part of this whole letter-to-PAW thing has been that a few older alums have come forward and shared stories about how they too carved out a space to be reflective and progressive at Princeton, even at a time when it was probably even less supported than it is now.

      1. Oh, definitely more complex. Being able to soul-search is a privileged position, but just like any other kind of privilege, we have to admit that we’re lucky and then move on to see how we can make the most of what fortune gave us.

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