You Had… [insert privilege here], Shouldn’t Everyone?
“You had… support, shouldn’t everyone?” read the new College EDge marketing campaign plastered around school. “That’s a little odd,” I thought as I passed by one of these ads containing words like support, direction, and advisors, for the third or fourth time in one day, “why should everyone?” The more I ruminated on this phrase, the more it became apparent that this concept bothered me—I was pretty sure I did not agree.
Before anyone makes a snap judgment about my perspective on College EDge, I want to be clear that this is by no means a criticism of the organization itself. I think College EDge has a lofty and important goal. College EDge runs programming for local high-school students, raising awareness about the opportunities for and benefits of a college education. As college students, we have the chance to be the ambassadors for such an endeavor, and really make an impact on these student’s lives. Sounds awesome to me.
Yet, the phrase “shouldn’t everyone” disconcerts me. We can all agree that there are certain needs that everyone should have. Everyone should have food, everyone should have shelter, everyone should have a family or community that can include them and offer them care. Yes, it would be nice if everyone could have the privileges and amenities that we each had, such as support, direction, and advisors, but I am just not sure that anyone is in a position to say that everyone should. Granted, the line distinguishing what is fair for everyone to have and what is extra is, by necessity, an arbitrary one; let’s just make sure it is drawn in an appropriate and realistic location.
Moreover, this line is very fine and not without significant implications. The difference between determining the objective needs of others, versus projecting one’s own values or lifestyles onto others, is immense. When one begins to impose on others his own image of what an individual is entitled to, he moves away from kindness and helpfulness, and much closer to patronization and condescension. In fact, this is not a new phenomenon, but rather one that can be witnessed throughout history. Rudyard Kipling, 19th-century English poet describes in “The White Man’s Burden” the imperialistic tendencies of the great Western powers toward smaller nations. Kipling justifies such actions by claiming that they are helping uncivilized societies, giving them services that they don’t even know they want or need. What was initially rationalized as sincere altruism, however, is now viewed with more skepticism. Are these actions truly altruistic, or do people who view themselves as superior try to “civilize” their supposed inferiors. Has College EDge fallen into the same trap?
What could the ad have said? How about: “You had support, others want it too.” Although all helpful acts potentially carry patronizing attitudes, these attitudes are mitigated when someone actually requests your help. Then, instead of offering your assistance to something your values deem important, you lend a hand to someone who genuinely seeks it. It is no longer a guessing game, or a determination from up high, but now it is an engagement between two people—in which you can provide for someone in need.
Additionally, help becomes less condescending when one acts with the other benefits of volunteerism in mind. This can include both personal benefits as well as the fulfillment of larger ideals or values. In the case at hand, by taking part in college preparatory education and awareness for local public school students and interacting with a culture and society different from their own, Yeshiva University students can gain new perspectives and insight into their own lives. Furthermore, College EDge creates a most worthwhile opportunity for YU students to help forge a larger sense of community amongst the diverse populations of Washington Heights. I would argue that a campaign promoting these notions could elevate a potentially troubling mission to a noble task, and bring with it a team of volunteers who are on the same plane as their cause.