Ever wonder whether the pretty blonde girl begging for money in the Square is actually an anthropology concentrator conducting an experiment for her thesis? Ever suspect that the bag she’s got under her poncho is actually a monogrammed Goyard?
Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised.
After all, while last year’s economic downturn may have palpably affected the Harvard undergraduate experience in the more noticeable currency of decreased funding for student initiatives, grants, and, of course, hot breakfast, it seems to have also amplified a peculiar, age-old tendency among the more well-moneyed of our peers. You can probably guess which one it is that I’m referring to—the apparent obligation to demonstrate a visible lack of immunity from economic hardship, when such is clearly not the case.
In other words, for some strange reason, many affluent students seem to be under the impression that by acting as “normal,” impecunious students, they will get more out of the collegiate experience while simultaneously making everyone else around them more comfortable. But hiding the extent of one’s privilege is hardly a means of experiencing “what it’s like” downstairs, and pretending as though certain affordable luxuries are just too expensive isn’t exactly considerate—it’s insulting.
First of all, I do not mean to define wealth merely from a superficial analysis of a person’s appearance or behavior: Obviously, someone in the Yard wearing a Burberry coat is not necessarily a card-carrying member of the American socio-economic elite. But as Harvard still educates a sizeable percentage of the children in this demographic, chances are that you’ve run across more than one in your time here. And I would be willing to bet that these wealthy individuals have actively attempted to hide the extent of their privilege, if only a little bit.
Also, I don’t mean to say that a number of our wealthy peers attempt to hide where they’re from, the schools they’ve gone to, or the things they’ve done in their lives. I merely mean that around Cambridge, they insist on taking the T because taxis are too expensive, avoid shopping at the Tannery because their budgets simply won’t allow, and ruminate deeply before dining out at any Square establishment more expensive than Café of India because, you know, it’s not really appropriate for college students to eat outside of the dining hall without a special occasion, right?
For one, small sacrifices like these come nowhere near simulating what it’s actually like to be on a real budget with a finite number of dollars to spend each week, no exceptions. Does having hot chocolate at Burdick’s only once a week instead of twice therefore teach anything other than affectation? Please. Also, how offensive does it seem to those who do operate on tight budgets when they hear their affluent friends complain about the price of an entrée at Grafton Street, especially when it’s evident that in four years, all of this feigned frugality will be a distant memory, another college phase like Rubinoff or Ritalin?
Regardless of the intentions behind this behavior, our wealthier peers should have no qualms about exercising the spending habits with which they were raised and that many of them will resume practicing immediately upon kissing Fair Harvard goodbye. In that sense, would a little more honesty really be that much more difficult to show?
Granted, it is no secret that the rich are difficult to understand. In fact, the only thing that can really be said with any certainty about them is what the narrator of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Rich Boy” tells us in the second sentence of the story. “They are very different from you and me,” he says.
Considering our very own pool of wealthy Harvard undergraduates, is the imperative to hide wealth beneath a veneer of more frugal circumstances—to be rich and to pretend to be otherwise—just another one of those inexplicable differences?
Let’s hope not.
James K. McAuley ’12, a Crimson associate editorial editor, is a history and literature concentrator in Currier House.