The American Mirage

Harvard students are infatuated with the idea of who deserves to be here. Whether it’s legacies—admitted for the loyalty and funds they bring to the institution—or minorities—accepted purportedly only for the color of their skin—most of these discussions are based on a harmful paradigm: the idea that we can enumerate why some students deserve their spot at Harvard, and why others don’t.

I know for a fact that there are people in this world who work harder than me, who are smarter than me, who have accomplished more than me, but were never offered a place in the Harvard Class of 2008. Most never even applied. I like to joke that I am a white Michiganian accepted on affirmative action—at Harvard just because I was born and raised in Guatemala.

Still, I think that the same is true for everyone here. Everyone has at least one thing that he or she was accepted for, and everyone feels under-qualified in at least some respects. The best thing about coming to Harvard is realizing how human everyone is. This isn’t a college of superheroes but of everyday people. Yet Harvard students are rightfully known for putting themselves on pedestals, which moves us further away from the problems in the world that I believe we have a duty to try and solve. A never-ending argument about who deserves to be here is one of the many ways we do so.

Stepping down from that pedestal requires us to be truthful with ourselves about the farcical concepts of meritocracy that we use to justify our privilege. The fact of the matter is that the vast majority of the world, living on under two dollars a day and not speaking Harvard’s language of instruction, has no chance of even attending college, much less Harvard. I refuse to believe that out of billions of people there is not one person that under different circumstances could have taken my place here; we surely aren’t the only 6,600 students in the world that deserve to be here.

Yet we delight in believing in a world where anyone that works hard enough can make it. It’s easy to see it that way from where we stand. All around us there are success stories of people overcoming overwhelming odds. Although these concepts can pop up in multiple contexts, the paradigmatic example is the 19th century American author, Horatio Alger, and his famous rags-to-riches stories. The popularity of this theme is exemplified by Alger’s success and continues to be the driving force in the concept of the American Dream.

Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, the stories of the dead and downtrodden aren’t given the same voice as the success stories that society loves to lionize. The most recent example of this behavior has developed in the current debate on immigration, where arguments regarding the American Dream crop up incessantly.

In defending and attacking the rights of undocumented immigrants in their search for citizenship, stories of the migrants that made it, who carved out their own piece of the pie in America, dominate the discussion. Yet for every migrant that achieves economic success, tens of thousands don’t. For every migrant that makes it into the U.S., hundreds of thousands don’t. For every migrant that decides to make the trip, millions rot in destitution. My experience with Latin American migrants leads me to see each of them enveloped in a sort of pyramid of destruction.

The stories that the media renders most visible in our everyday lives of privilege are those from the top of that pyramid. Even the stories of suffering come mostly from the U.S.-Mexican border, even though most of the death and destruction comes miles before it is even reached. I am probably one of the few fortunate people, traveling frequently between rural Guatemala and the hallowed halls of Harvard, that is lucky enough to be reminded of the top and bottom of that pyramid. What scares me the most is that rural Guatemala is actually middle class in comparison with the world, so I have yet to even begin to comprehend the global pyramid of destruction. At Harvard we are on top of that pyramid and we’re leaving billions behind.

It’s harmful to continue to believe in the meritocracy that we use to justify our positions here. The American Dream—exemplified in working hard toward a Harvard diploma—is more of an American Mirage for 99.9 percent of the world. If we don’t have the sense to recognize it for the illusion that it is, we’ll get led further into the desert and away from improving the plight of those that need help the most.

Anyone who argues that we deserve to be here does not deserve to be here. The topic of “merit”—however that amorphous term can be simplified—is a fruitless conversation, and it distracts from the more important issues on which we all should focus. I always say that Harvard freshmen have more to teach us than upperclassmen have to teach them: There’s rarely a freshman I talk to that’s comfortable with their position in their respective Harvard classes—so many believe they don’t deserve it. When is it that we stray from this valuable humility and gratitude and why do we lose it?

Kyle A. de Beausset ’08-’09, a Crimson editorial editor, is an environmental science and public policy concentrator in Leverett House.