October 23, 2020

DERY | The Cornellian’s Middle Child Syndrome

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During numerous late nights of work in my living room, my suitemates and I will occasionally look up from our laptops, and ask how much more difficult we think we have it compared to students at other schools. We confirm that “it has to be” so, thereby validating our own efforts, and putting down friends from other schools — albeit non-maliciously — who spend most of their nights at college partying.

It’s not uncommon among Cornellians to pat ourselves on the back in the face of failure, chalking it up to the difficulty of our school. We cling onto higher ground anytime we reassure ourselves that our grades are hard-earned in comparison to even Harvard, to whom we chant “Easy A” at Lynah Rink. The idea of “work hard, play hard” is often distorted into complaining that we don’t get to have as much free time compared to those at “other schools” that are supposedly easier, yet when we do enjoy a break, we somehow deserve it more than others, since after all, our rigor is supposedly unmatched.

When an engineer tells you that Cornell is the best STEM Ivy, or when a Hotelie tells you that Cornell has the best hospitality school, we use our rigor as our claim to status. It’s the chip on our shoulder when we subconsciously care (but hardly admit) that we are ranked lower than the same schools we like to elevate ourselves above. Regardless of our personal beliefs towards such rankings, and whether they matter or not, we inextricably tie ourselves to these comparisons, to our self-proclaimed status as a rigorous school and our refusal to believe that other schools are as difficult as ours. It’s far from an inferiority complex, but it’s not quite a superiority complex. It’s a sturdy yet fragile mentality: Our spirit is apparently stoic, yet easily irritated when people tell us otherwise. We Cornellians say we “don’t care” that Harvard is ranked higher in the same way that James Harden doesn’t care that Giannis didn’t select him in the All-Star draft.

It’s no secret, then, that struggling through coursework here is something to which we can all relate. The perception that our school is particularly unique in tthis sense is something we take comfort in. Take away this safety net, though, and we lose our excuse, and with it our self-reassurance: When we can’t pin failure on the difficulty of the school to keep our spirits up, then it makes failure that much more real and inexcusable. So, when we wish away our work or complain about “the curve,” we should be careful what we wish for —— we can’t have it both ways.

But, should we even want it either way? In an ideal world, we’d refrain from using our school’s rigor as our claim to fame, as our excuse, or as a reason to have lower expectations. But if putting this perception out of mind was truly this easy, then I wouldn’t be writing about it in the first place.

One of the primary, yet possibly most fixable, culture flaws we have here at Cornell is naturally believing we work harder than those those at other schools. It’s part of the reason we are irked when we feel snubbed by college rankings. It’s the reason for which here we excuse what would be considered an objective failure at other schools, or even high school. It’s the reason why a class of overachievers can become complacent as long as they don’t fall too far below the average.

It is with such mindsets, and even our somewhat explicit and condescending remarks or thoughts towards others in another major, college, or university, that we Cornellians act as middle children. We claim an exceptional ability to cope with rigor to outsiders in order to seek status among our fellow Ivy “elder siblings,” but we also tend to hold the perception that we work hardest to elevate us above our “younger siblings,” whether it be those at other schools or even sometimes our own peers. If we become conscious of these Freudian slips that feed our egos in the good times but usher us into denial when we struggle, we would be taking a significant first step in disconnecting success — and more importantly failure — at Cornell from those of our peers both here and in other schools.


Roei Dery is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. The Dery Bar runs every other Thursday this semester.