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Zappa ’17: Responsibility and power after Brown

Op-Ed Contributor
Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Admission to Brown is among the greatest gifts one can receive in the United States, which fancies itself a meritocracy in which a college degree is among the most prized credentials. It is a gift that will never be repaid. The gift is power — the ability to do or ability tout court. This immense power comes with commensurate responsibility. It is the responsibility to work toward a world in which some are not granted so much more power than others because they are born to a favored class or even because they ascend into one by graduating from a university on the east side of Providence, Rhode Island.

More than two years after graduating from Brown, I write to share the above words in The Herald because I wish I had heard them as an undergraduate, especially as a first-year. I also choose to write for a university audience because a long-form meditation on responsibility and power at Yale deeply influenced my thinking.

In that essay, Yale alum Natalia Dashan critiques the perceived excesses of student protests in order to articulate a contrast between the ability to critique power (a talent widely cultivated at Yale and Brown) and the ability to use power to curb its broader, pernicious ramifications. When the powerful decline to recognize and make good on their power, Dashan writes, “The rich and powerful actually start believing that they are neither of those things. They actually start believing that there is not much difference in status and resources between themselves and the upper-middle class, the middle class — and eventually, between themselves and the actual poor. They forget that they have certain privileges and duties that others do not.”

Dashan’s piece offers a lengthy and complex argument to which I cannot fully do justice in this column. In the quote above, she is referring specifically to the one-percenters who, as of the writing of a New York Times column in 2017, were more common at Brown and Yale than students from the bottom 60 percent of the American income scale. Her argument, then, does not completely elide the differences in power between Yale students from wealthy and poor backgrounds. She also does not draw an unqualified contrast between critiquing power and using it to mitigate inequality on a broader scale.

Still, I would like to reframe the tension Dashan identifies between using the power of an Ivy League education to critique a dean’s prejudiced Yelp reviews or the slavery-linked name of a college, and using that power to “productively replace” the deeply unequal social system students study, critique and inherit when they leave top universities. My contention is that these goals and impulses are, if not always in practice, in fact more complementary than contradictory. The ability and propensity for students at universities like Brown and Yale to critique unequal distributions of power are two of the precise reasons they are also responsible for recognizing and using the power those educations afford.

I title this essay “Responsibility and power after Brown” because two years of distance from my time here allows me to consider the purported excesses of which Dashan writes with greater understanding. College is the place and time to learn about inequality and power and to learn how to critique them. Occasional excess as well as a potential lack of generosity and nuance are part of the learning process. The key is that students who learn to identify and critique power’s insidious manifestations along lines of class and other facets of identity must graduate and act on Dashan’s lesson.

It is incumbent upon Brown students to recognize the power they do have and to use that power — that of an educated class and of education itself — to root out the broader inequality Brown teaches us to contest. It is incumbent upon alums to rise to that task with the generosity toward others and sense of scale that years and eventually decades of experience afford. Most students’ time at Brown lasts just four years. The time after will offer decades to do better — not just to check one’s privilege but to pay back the social debt it accrues — by leveling the vastly different outcomes privilege systematically produces.

No one postgraduate path fully captures what it means to be a responsible steward of the power imparted by a Brown education. It would be unimaginative to claim that there are not greater possibilities beyond local organizing or professional politics. Likewise, while perennial campus recruitment for consulting, finance and tech firms sparks a justified conversation on the shortcomings of corporate work, sanctimonious screeds against whole professions obscure the possibility of pursuing justice even and especially in contexts where it seems most unlikely. A student’s choice of career is among the most essential considerations concerning how they will repay their debt to a society that has given them an invaluable gift after Commencement. But career choices need not last a lifetime, and even those who appear to sacrifice or take up the most selfless jobs should not assume to have traversed the gap between good and evil.

On the contrary, responsibility entails relentless self-questioning. It is a call — and not one that enjoins us to make judgments about whether we have decisively fulfilled our own responsibility by propping ourselves up in relation to the choices of others. Rather, it is an injunction to strive more ardently toward a justice we will never fully realize.

For wealthy alums, responsibility may mean playing by the rules rather than seeking loopholes, deploying their resources to fight for stronger and fairer standards of justice and never falling for the illusion that hard work excuses a society in which many suffer while a powerful few thrive. For all of us, handling the power inherent to a Brown degree means admitting we wield that power and the power of whatever knowledge Brown gives us. It means rejecting self-satisfaction and complacency. It means admitting that we never do quite enough and working, at however small a scale, to better both the institutions in which we are implicated and the lives of those around us.

This call is intentionally open-ended. Rather than prescribing a path toward justice or shaming those who would seem to have failed to take it, I hope to have gestured toward the social justice so many Brown students treasure as an asymptotic goal. We will never achieve the total justice that eludes us. It is essential to urge, though, that the next class of first-year students and generations of students to come as well as the alums still living and benefiting from the gift of a Brown education try to seek that justice. Recognizing the rare power we have as Brown students and alums to do better — to do almost anything, as first-years may imagine when they first walk through the Van Wickle Gates — is the first step toward responsible stewardship of our immeasurable, if never fully equal, power and privilege. It is the first step toward taking seriously the greatest gift most of us can hope to have received.

Joe Zappa ’17 can be reached at Please send responses to this opinion to and op-eds to

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