Columns

Taking Sides: Are Ivy League students more obligated to give back to the world than other students?

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Opinions Columnists
Friday, March 1, 2013

Enriquez ’16: Yes

As a kid, I always wondered why I was so lucky and felt guilty — to have toys, to have parents who weren’t divorced, to live in a quiet and safe neighborhood — and to this day I have never learned why I have been blessed with all these things. The guilt would nag at me for weeks.

So I did what any worried kid would do: I asked my mom. To paraphrase, she told me it was just the weird way the world worked and then she said all that really matters is that when you are blessed with good fortune, you make sure you are worthy of that good fortune. And, most importantly, she said to use it to make good fortune for others.

All of us — every Brown student and every Ivy Leaguer — have won one of the most important and most random lotteries of our lives: the college lottery. We are the 9 percent. No matter who you are, you got lucky.

I follow my mom’s rule because it makes my life mean something. It allows me to hold my head up tall, to look a homeless man in the eye and have a genuine conversation with him even as I walk around a school that spends as much money as multiple countries put together.

Everyone on this campus wants to be happy as an adult. Happiness does not lie in hedonism or in the simple satisfaction of our desires. This is shown by the fact that we can experience boredom. If we were to satisfy all of our desires and seek out all the pleasurable experiences we could think of, we would end up like Billy Madison, completely bored and not very happy.

The only way to achieve long-term happiness is through meaningful struggle and eventual success. If you develop a strong, loving relationship with your future spouse, if you succeed at work and feel capable, if you publish a book, then you will be happy. Every meaningful success you achieve is a form of giving back.

But how do we gauge if it is meaningful? The only measure any of us should use for our achievements is our own. And fundamental to that measure is the use of our own baseline. If we started off with a blessed childhood and a lot of luck or if we found luck along the way, we owe it to ourselves to feel that most of what we have is a result of our accomplishments and not some random twist of fate. We were lucky to be accepted into this glorious university, and now our happiness and the good of the world depend on our struggles to give back.

 

Nico Enriquez ’16 can be reached at juan_nicolas_enriquez@brown.edu. 

 

Corvese ’15: No

There is no denying that being a student at an Ivy League school is a privilege. We live on historically distinguished campuses with esteemed educators and opportunities many in academia will never see. That being said, our status as Ivy League students does not automatically designate us as the saviors and protectors of the rest of the world. We should strive to do what is good, but we should also pursue our own interests and passions, whatever they may entail.

The notion that Ivy League students hold more of an obligation to influence the world is excessively idealistic. The utilitarian approach of doing the most good may “give back” more to the world, but it is not the most effective when considering individual contingencies. Contributing to the world is beneficial, but how can one be an effective altruist when one’s own well-being is not accounted for? Our educations are more than one-way passes that end in giving back to the word. They are also pathways to exploring our own passions and individualities. It is through learning about ourselves that we can learn how to help others, no matter how long that process takes. We should pursue our desires and then use our educations to benefit ourselves and others, whether that means performing international charity work or simply babysitting on weekends.

Placing this responsibility on Ivy League students is not only overly idealistic, but also extremely condescending. Being an Ivy League student is certainly a privilege, but we are not the only students at renowned institutions. Let us keep in mind that the “Ivy League” itself is little more than an athletic conference. Certainly, the title is now synonymous with academic prestige, but being a student in the Ancient Eight does not and should not automatically designate us as saviors to the rest of the world. Rather than aim to help the world within the Ivy League sphere, why not share that obligation to help with everyone else? Truly giving back to the world takes more effort than what a group of private college students from the Northeast can give.

Both during our educations and after graduating, chances are we will “give back” to the world in some way. The impact of that contribution will differ from person to person, and there is nothing wrong with that. Not all of us will have the desires or resources to become the next successful philanthropist or leader of a charity, and there is nothing wrong with that, either. We should each aim to secure our own happiness and well-being and be helpful to others, but we should not feel a stronger duty to give back than anyone else.

 

Gabriella Corvese ’15 thinks writing opinions columns is a good way to give back and can be reached at gabriella_corvese@brown.edu

 

Enriquez’s Rebuttal:

Corvese brings up several good points, and I agree with many of them. My main quarrel with her argument is she assumes too much of the opposing opinion and takes too narrow a view on what constitutes giving back.

Corvese wrongly assumes that because I support “giving back,” I do not support the exploration of “our own passions and individualities,” especially over extended periods of time. I fully agree with Corvese that “learning about ourselves” is essential to helping the world. I do not think they are mutually exclusive. We have to identify our passions and the fields that will encourage us to produce our greatest work before we can set off to change the world for the better.

Although she does argue that “giving back” can be done in multiple ways, at several points Corvese indicates that the maximum, or ideal, method of giving back is through gaining status as a “successful philanthropist or leader of a charity.” I think that some of the most successful cases of giving back were completed by people who were selfish, crazy, nowhere-near-philanthropist types: artists. People like Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin have given back and made the world a better place. They brought emotions, beauty and the accompanying self-exploration to a level that no philanthropist, however well-intentioned, could produce.

My opponent’s argument that my suggestion that we are more obligated to give back is “overly idealistic” and “extremely condescending” is flawed because I never argued Ivy League students are constitutionally better than anyone — I only argued that they were more lucky. This is, statistically, a fact. I honestly do contend with her belief that we “should not feel a stronger duty to give back than anyone else.” It is up to every one of us to look at what we have been given in our lives and ask, “Did I earn this or was I lucky?” In my case, it is a mix of both. For that reason, I strive to prove I am worthy of that random good fortune by making sure I give back as much as possible.

 

Corvese’s Rebuttal:

First and foremost, I admire my opponent’s integrity and desire to return his fortune to the world. That being said, it is naive to assume good fortune is simply a consequence of luck and that our personal fulfillments rely on reciprocating this luck.

The only “luck” that contributed to our lives was the environments into which we were born, conditions over which we had no control. Many were blessed with resources from the onset while others had to overcome great adversity. But our paths through these lives, including our acceptance into the Ivy League, were based on more than just luck. Admissions officers did not just pick our names out of hats. They considered our academic talents and our commitment to our communities, among many other factors. We all worked hard to get here, and our obligations should be to continue pursuing our successes, not repaying a fictional lady luck.

Ivy League schools are not the only academic institutions that diligent individuals attend. Plenty of other schools have low acceptance rates — U.S. News and World Report lists a 7.1 percent acceptance rate at Stanford University and a 9.7 percent report at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. These numbers indicate qualified students, not a lottery. Why are Ivy League institutions more responsible to save the world than other schools? We should not feel this obligation and instead should pursue our passions, whatever they may be. Besides, with the opportunities provided to us, it is practically inevitable that we will contribute to the world some way, large or small.

I do agree excessive hedonism diminishes character and contributes to boredom. We should seek a balance between satisfying our desires and being helpful individuals. Billy Madison, the lazy, indulgent heir in an Adam Sandler movie, initially does not appreciate the value of education. But at the film’s end, he decides to go to college and become a teacher — a choice he made. Our educations provide us with the resources to fulfill our dreams, and we should do with it what we would like, not what we feel obligated to do.

  • That Girl

    I really do not like the notion that those attending schools in the Ivy League are held to a higher standard, especially about giving back. Looking at Enriquez’s “college lottery” point, shouldn’t every student currently attending a college or university be equally as obligated to give back? Every school as an admission rate, and sure they vary widely. If it comes down to luck, why do we have more responsibility to give back than students attending a state school? They are lucky too, as compared to those who didn’t get in. If someone graduates from Brown and then they decides that they want to work in a mall because they love clothes, who are we to say that they owe something to society because they were “lucky” enough to get into this school.

  • aggus

    It depends what Ivy. If Harvard and Columbia, they will just keep on taking.