“I got into Yale Law School. That’s the number-one law school in the country”: words uttered by Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh in order to dismiss numerous allegations of sexual aggression made against him.
A “baby-faced freshman” on “Stanford’s varsity swim team, one of the best in the country” whose “once-promising future remains uncertain” and whose “life and career were upended during a night of drinking”: similar words written by Michael Miller of the Washington Post in response to Brock Turner’s sexual assault of an unconscious female. Much the same, Turner’s father wrote, “His life will never be the one that he dreamed about and worked so hard to achieve.”
Both defenses highlight a troubling and dangerous idea: these men are virtuous, moral, upstanding people who could never truly have committed such horrors because they went to an elite university. There must be some other explanation: they were too young or they had been drinking or it was campus culture, perhaps. I mean, how could they not be virtuous, moral, upstanding people? They went to an elite college for goodness sakes!
This “cult of elitist virtue” does not arise out of nowhere. From the moment students are accepted to these elite schools, they are bombarded with the message that they are among the chosen few, selected because of their virtue, intelligence and ability to contribute great things to society. The college selection process and, arguably, American culture as a whole, are infatuated with the concept of meritocracy. This often conflates personal worth, value and goodness with success, achievement and the perceived eliteness of the college attended. Perhaps predictably, this distorted vision of meritocracy and its role in virtue leads some or, at the minimum, one former Stanford student and one Yale alum, to believe that they can do anything because they are inherently virtuous. Their merits, their hard work and their acceptance to an elite college prove their worth and therefore, they feel partially excused from any immoral actions they may take because those are simply ‘mistakes,’ and deep down they are virtuous people. Il faut que jeunesse se passe: youth must have it’s fling, one could say.
This attitude, most dangerously, inherently protects those who would assault and violate others; it inhibits our ability to hold immoral actors accountable. How we know? Because Brock Turner is not in jail and Brett Kavanaugh is on the Supreme Court with representatives like Senator Susan Collins touting his “well qualified” rating.
As long as a culture of elitist virtue exists on campus, it will corrupt and undermine the very mission of this school, a mission rooted in the belief that we can educate students to serve the “public welfare.” It is true that there are Stanford students who have done great things, and it is likely that Stanford students will do great things in the future; however, if we fail to make it clear that accomplishing great things does not excuse one from the constant pursuit of acting virtuously, we will have failed to serve the public welfare. Virtue must be earned; it must be earned continuously, each and every day. The sooner we remember that, the better.
Contact Connor Toups at ctoups22 ‘at’ stanford.edu.