September 6, 2019

BARAN | The Average and the Averagest

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I had a lot of time to reflect on my first year at Cornell this summer. During those reflections, I was plagued by one realization in particular: Cornell students have a massive superiority complex. Most of the students here go about their lives believing they are among an elite group of students that is smarter than the majority of their peers studying or working elsewhere. We look at college rankings, standardized test scores and other meaningless metrics, and construe our success in them as intellectual superiority.

There’s a reason most of us are from privileged backgrounds. There’s a reason most of us are from wealthy areas on the coasts. There’s a reason that our student population is teeming with people from the affluent New York suburb of Westchester (granted, we are a public university, but there is still a disproportionate amount of kids from Westchester here, even taking that into account). I hold that it’s not because those places somehow inherently produce the best minds in the United States. It’s because wealth and privilege are the drivers of admissions into elite schools like Cornell.

Many of us had the money to afford private schools and standardized test prep. We had parents that were able to give us opportunities other kids never had. There’s no reason those other kids weren’t every bit as intelligent as we are. In fact, one of the smartest people I’ve ever met was my manager at my gas station job back home. Family friends attest to his intelligence, and shrug their shoulders at his current job. We all know he would succeed in anything he tried, but he couldn’t go to college because he had to stay home to support his family. He grabbed the first job he could find, succeeded and settled. He’s now in his thirties.

Now, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with a life like that. Many people eschew higher education and are happy and successful. But we at Cornell didn’t do that. We had the opportunity and desire to go to college, and we ended up at a great one. Now that we’re here, many of us believe we’re intellectually superior to others. There’s a ubiquitous belief that we are the “best and the brightest.” I refuse to believe that.

Sure, most of us here at Cornell are smart. There are many people who had the same opportunities we did, and squandered them. And there are many here who did not come from wealth and privilege. But there are so many people who didn’t have the chances we had. In those masses of people, I guarantee you will find so, so many brilliant minds.

For those of you fuming, don’t worry — I do have a hypothesis that could explain why there is a disproportionate number of wealthy people here. America is, and has long been considered, a meritocracy, at least in theory. So wealthy people are generally wealthy for a reason. At some point in their lives or their relatives’ lives, someone in their family generated a lot of money. Usually, people who do that possess some degree of intelligence. Since intelligence is hereditary, it would make sense that a few of those genes passed down the moneymaker’s lineage. I realize the potential implications of this argument, but don’t extrapolate too far. Only about 50 to 80 percent of intelligence can be attributed to genetics, according to scientists.

I know that if I were to have grown up in an environment void of privilege, I would likely not be in the situation I find myself in now: studying at an amazing school and enjoying all the present and future benefits of the education I’m receiving. But I would be the same person.

Get off your high horse, Cornellians. You can go through your whole life as a lawyer or a consultant believing you’re brilliant, but never forget those who never got the chances you did. Life is simply a gamble, and you were dealt a royal flush.

Christian Baran is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at cbaran@cornellsun.com. Honestly runs every other Friday this semester.