H*ya Saxa: A senior’s reflection on ‘success’ past the Hilltop

April 24, 2014

Something I’ve noticed during my four years at Georgetown: students here will check and recheck their decisions to make sure they’re doing the right thing at the right time.

I’d say that urge also explains our fascination with the kind of graduation reflection I was asked to write.

I’ll admit I’m hesitant to dole out advice to you wide-eyed underclassmen. Call it humility—or something. In short, the must-hear advice ranges from, “If you don’t have a job lined up when you graduate, it’ll only go downhill from there,” to, “You should just enjoy yourself because you have the rest of your life to get everything sorted out.”

I took the latter to heart, for the obvious reason that we’re always more receptive to advice that vibes with our general worldview. Cliched as it may be, it’s worth reiterating in such a highly competitive environment: resist the urge to have your life planned out until death. We’ll all be all right.

We are known to be a highly driven bunch—“ruthlessly competent,” as one alumnus phrased it. We channel that energy into so many pursuits: wealth, power, notoriety or, sometimes, very admirable ideals.

This piece is addressed to those Georgetown students who are really out there to do good—to combat injustice in some big or small way.

A story for you: a professor asked his freshman seminar students what they wanted to be when they grew up. Out of fifteen, he was sitting among ten ambassadors, three secretaries of state, and one president. The person telling me this story was the anomaly, the guy who had trained his sights on a civil servant position in his home country. His response was based partially on practical constraints, but when he tells the story now, he makes a point about the fact that our peers like to see themselves running the show.

Very often, Georgetown students reach for such lofty goals because we see authority as a crucial tool for crafting our ideal world. It’s optimistic of us, to be sure. While I wholeheartedly endorse such sincere convictions, I’ve noticed that Georgetown’s competitive, careerist atmosphere impedes otherwise admirable aspirations.

As students, we need to recognize that there is a rigid ideology informing our University’s cultural definition of success. It’s the ideology that shapes legitimacy in the corporate private sector, in government work or in the non-profit sector. Our conception of success is not forged in a vacuum, but rather in the wake of the offices we aspire to. Institutional and social pressures encourage us to plug ourselves into companies, government agencies, or NGOs that preserve broadly oppressive systems. This is not to say that these groups can’t do any good—quite to the contrary. But very often, they are barred from undermining, or even acknowledging, pervasive social flaws. In fact, this complicity in service of modest reform lends them legitimacy.

We need to recognize that the avenues toward a successful career or financial portfolio are shaped by particular ideologies—perhaps more insidious iterations of the injustices we want to correct from the top of the career ladder. To achieve a “respectable” position, we resign ourselves to thinking within these constraints. We do a disservice to our idealism by failing to assess every possible theory about why our world is broken—and we ignore a wide array of possible solutions.

As an example, look at the way Occupy Sandy, a grassroots offshoot of Occupy Wall Street, filled in the gaps left by FEMA and the Red Cross’ Hurricane Sandy relief. Collaborating with a sprawling network on the ground to provide much needed practical assistance, the group engaged a radical social philosophy that extends far beyond disaster relief.

I predict that the next Occupy Sandy will not get kudos from the same crowd applauding FEMA’s efforts. And Georgetown as a whole will not endorse the group as a legitimate career goal.

I’m hesitant to apply more precise political terms to my critique of the well-intentioned liberal careerism at Georgetown. It might be fairly obvious where I’m coming from, but my real point here has more to do with the way that Georgetown students’ obsession with respectability and correctness limits the breadth of our intellectual inquiry. Ultimately, these politics inhibit our pursuit of comprehensive solutions to interconnected, systemic problems.

As I mentioned, I have the utmost respect for the fine intentions of many Georgetown students.

Setting aside my qualms with the way certain administrators and figureheads conduct themselves, this is a place filled with decent human beings doing much-needed work. Students should take advantage of our opportunity to engage with them in discussing as many possible problems from as many possible perspectives.

It might be appropriate here to relay something Kurt Vonnegut wrote to his daughter: “What makes this advice especially hollow and pious is that I am not dead yet. If it were any good, I could easily take it myself.”

H*ya Saxa.

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An outstanding Marxian critique (not Marxist in any way, which is a hue of a much different color). After all, GT is a well established institution educating young minds in the ruling class’ ideology. Wonderfully written and expressed. Thank you Rachel!