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