Columbia and Elitism

Posted on April 25th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. 9 comments

Last Thursday, my classmates and I at the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) at Columbia received an e-mail from an associate dean informing us that the school had selected Tara Sonenshine as the featured speaker at our graduation ceremony next month.

Needless to say, the news disappointed a large number of SIPA students, including me. After writing a couple of snarky posts about the choice on Facebook, I was asked to write a short op-ed expressing my disappointment for Communique, a SIPA student publication. Several other students chimed in with their own views of the subject, both in agreement with and in opposition to my own.

The reaction to the piece, both in-person and in the comments beneath the Communique post, was decidedly mixed. Several students approached me at school and thanked me for expressing something close to their views on the subject. Other people disagreed, at times strongly.

The substance of the criticism was varied, but fell into four general categories. First, some of the students felt that Sonenshine was more than acceptable as a speaker and were excited by the selection. Others felt that the question of the speaker was irrelevant and unworthy of debate. Still others worried that raising a stink over the graduation speaker was beneath the dignity of SIPA students and would embarrass both the speaker and the school.

But the vast majority of the negative comments took issue with our attitude, accusing myself and the other op-ed contributors of being elitist and entitled. Here’s a sample:

“What a bunch of spoiled brats”

“I was disgusted by the stark tone of entitlement”

“The sense of entitlement and elitism is troubling”

“In general, it seems SIPA cares a lot more about branding and getting big names to teach here with less concern about substance and quality of content”

Taken out of context, my remarks were elitist and entitled. I wrote that because SIPA is affiliated with an Ivy League institution, and is located in New York City, the school administrators should have had the clout to attract a much bigger “name” as our speaker. Understandably, a few of my classmates feel I’m arguing that we deserve a celebrity speaker because of where we go to school. Or that I think we’re special and we’re better than non-Ivy League students and so we should have someone more noteworthy than a mere Undersecretary of State like Tara Sonenshine.

Alas, this misses the point entirely. The point is this: a large part of the value of our degree depends on the school maintaining its elite status and prestige. Graduate schools across America cost a lot of money, but few are quite as expensive as SIPA, where tuition plus living expenses come out to around $70,000 per year. Needless to say, all SIPA students could have received a perfectly adequate Master’s in International Affairs at a number of institutions for a small fraction of the cost.

People choose to go to SIPA in large part because it is elite. SIPA students take justifiable pride in being admitted to a school that rejects the vast majority of its applicants. We know that our degree confers immediate respectability and credibility upon us regardless of our other accomplishments. When I told people in China that I went to UC San Diego- a highly-ranked university with an excellent reputation- few had even heard of it. But this past summer, when I mentioned that I was a student at Columbia University, the nod of recognition was universal. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t make me feel proud. That may seem tangential to my education- and it is, in a sense- but it’s one of the main reasons why SIPA can justify charging so much in tuition.

So to those who accused me of elitism, consider me guilty as charged. Elitism is what attracted me to SIPA in the first place, and it is what I’m paying for above all else. I understand the inclination to recoil from the word due to it having a negative connotation, but I think a lot of my classmates are being disingenuous when they say that they don’t care about “name” and “prestige”. They might not, but they sure as hell should.

As far as having a sense of entitlement is concerned, again, consider me guilty as charged. Consider this analogy: you and your significant other save up for a year to go on a very nice vacation in France. You select a five-star resort that gets rave reviews and willingly pay full price for your room.  Once you arrive at the resort, you discover that the restaurant only serves cheap diner food.

Now, I personally like eating cheap diner food, and  in many cases prefer it to fancy French cuisine. In no way would eating grilled cheese sandwiches and drinking milkshakes diminish my intrinsic enjoyment of the vacation. But I would feel that I wasn’t getting my money’s worth, and that I had deserved more considering the amount that I paid. I’d be willing to bet that most people would agree, and would be less inclined to stay at that resort in the future. Few I suspect would chide me for having a sense of entitlement.

To me, the situation at SIPA is similar. I personally don’t care all that much about who speaks at graduation, and I have no reason to think that Tara Sonenshine will in any way be inadequate. Most likely, I’ll be hoping that her speech will be brief enough for us to wrap up the ceremony and get on with the inevitable after-party. But still, the choice of Sonenshine- and not someone with more stature or celebrity- does strike me as inadequate on the part of the administration.

SIPA’s prestige depends on large part on its cache as a school where presidents and statesmen are born, even if none of us ever reach such heights. The value of our degree depends in part on the school maintaining its reputation as a home to world-class scholars, visiting officials, and high-profile guests. As much as we’d like to think otherwise, that sort of thing matters- a lot. And given the amount that we have riding on this degree, I don’t think it’s in any way unreasonable to expect the administration to keep this in mind when selecting a graduation speaker.







The Bloomberg Fantasy

Posted on April 18th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. No Comments

David Weigel at Slate rightly needles Thomas Friedman after the New York Times columnist  called for New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to throw his hat into the presidential election ring. The long and the short of it is this: Friedman thinks that neither the Democrats nor the Republicans are up to the challenge of  making the necessary long-term infrastructure investments that the United States needs to win the future. Bloomberg is up for the challenge. Therefore he should shake up the race by entering.

Though contractual obligations (or some old-fashioned Times initiative) precludes him from stating his partisan preferences, Friedman is basically a Democrat. Yet here he makes the classic mistake of ignoring the role of feasibility in calling for political outcomes. I think it’s safe to assume that President Obama supports increased government investment into infrastructure. In fact, it’s more than safe- Obama said it himself! In a perfect world, where his administration could implement its policies free of obstruction, I’m sure Obama would have earmarked funds for the very railway line that Friedman so heartily complains about. Yet the reality of the US political system means he can’t, so instead he seeks compromise.

Bloomberg is a sensible guy who would probably make a fairly competent president. But his ability to speak in favor of initiatives like infrastructure investment is because he’s the mayor of New York City rather than the president of the United States. Most New Yorkers like infrastructure, because they depend on it.  Ditto public transportation. A Mayor Obama, shooting hoops at Gracie Mansion, would undoubtedly feel far bolder to express his preferences for these policies than he does while ensconced in the White House during an election year.

In light of this situation, you could make a point that the entire U.S. political system is broken, and I wouldn’t even disagree with you that much. But liberals have to get used to the fact that the mayor of overwhelmingly liberal New York will almost always seem more appealing than the president of the United States.




Visa Run

Posted on April 18th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. 2 comments

The Wall Street Journal reports on one of the more venerable activities a foreigner undertakes in China: the visa run! The piece quotes an unnamed 29-year old Californian in Southwest China, someone I know who happens to be an occasional commenter on this very blog:

One 29-year-old Californian who teaches social studies in southwestern China has taken 10-hour bus rides to the Laotian border and eight-hour trips to Vietnam for visa runs. Laid-back Laos is a snap, he says, but re-entering China from Vietnam can be a hassle.

Some visa runners have had their China guidebooks confiscated if the books have maps that mark Taiwan as a separate country rather than a province of China, he says. And during one crossing, a border guard grilled him about what college he attended. “Harvard,” he answered. Is Harvard’s president male or female, he says the guard demanded to know.

The teacher says he guessed male but the border guard knew better. Drew Faust had become Harvard’s first female president. He explained he was thinking of the years he went to college, an answer that earned him entry back into China.

Left unstated: the Californian and the border guard then engaged in a 20-minute discussion of Lawrence Summers’ comments about why fewer women study science and math.

(If I were asked who the current president of Columbia is I would be able to respond instantly, if only because he spams us with annoying e-mails all the time.)

When I moved to China any foreigner could pick up a 1-year business visa at a Hong Kong travel agency for a reasonable fee and no questions asked. Then, with the Olympics approaching in 2008, China tightened its visa rules so that those wishing to get a business visa had to prove that they, you know, did actual business.

Not surprisingly, the laowai barfly population of Kunming thinned considerably after that.

Even though I endured a lot of hassles in getting visas in the last year or so I lived in China, I have little sympathy for foreigners who whine about how The Man isn’t allowing them to live freely in their adopted country. After all, the Chinese regularly encounter far greater difficulties obtaining visas for the U.S. The process, which involves interviews and copious paperwork- is capricious and unfair, and even marriage to an American cannot guarantee a U.S. visa for a Chinese citizen.




The Perils of Cultural Translation

Posted on April 6th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. No Comments

An attempt to translate Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” to Chinese audiences has apparently met with little success:

To watch an American classic on a Chinese stage is a study in cross-culturalism. And, in thecase of Death of a Salesman, the comparison extends to economics, living standards andlifestyles. When Arthur Miller’s masterpiece first came to China in 1983, the Chinese audiencehad never heard of “installment payments” or “life insurance”. Nor had they seen a travelingsalesman in at least 33 years. The idea that an ordinary citizen could own an automobile musthave struck them as out of this world. As a matter of fact, that production, which ran for morethan 50 shows to wide acclaim, was less about the American dream and its failings than aboutclass struggle. Or, so it was perceived. Even in the eyes of the most informed at that time, theplay could only have been construed as the underclass suffering from the oppression of theruling class, an interpretation shaped by three decades of political indoctrination.

I don’t know how Chinese audiences of the era made do with the fact that the Lomans own ahouse and a car. I figure it must have been downplayed or ignored.

When The Grapes of Wrath, the 1940 American movie about the truly downtrodden, applied forscreening in the Soviet Union, the censors loved the theme of class struggle but struggled withthe inconvenient detail that the American farmer in the film owns a truck, a priceless assettotally out of reach of ordinary Soviet citizens of the time. So, the film was banned.

Last week, one of my professors recounted a story of how he saw the Vietnam War film Coming Home at a cinema in Prague in the early 1980s. American films were usually not allowed behind the Iron Curtain, but Coming Home was permitted due to its portrayal of imperialist humiliation. Anyway, the Czech audience regarded the film quietly until seeing a scene filmed in an American supermarket, at which point they emitted an audible, sustained gasp. None had seen a shop with so much stuff before.