By Steven Li, VI Form
To the 2017 Graduates of Elite High Schools
For seniors, graduation is approaching us faster than we think. In addition to celebrating the payoff of our hard work, our departure from elite schools, particularly independent schools, also means we are about to enter the society that it has sheltered us from. This society is not very friendly and accepting. Truth be told, it has never been this divisive since the Vietnam War and never this irrational since the Red Terror. Disagreement escalates into hatred, frenziness replaces reason, and worst of all, we as a society struggle to find a common moral standard.
In such circumstance, people criticize the elites of our society, blasting them for not caring about voices of general public, being selfish in their decisions, and to sum up, causing all the social disorders from their high ground in Capitol Hill, Wall Street, and Silicon Valley. Secretary Clinton calls “Wall Street Elites” a threat to the “Main Street” for ordinary American people. And, President Trump criticizes the rigged political system since the first day of his campaign. These voices have definitely raised society’s hatred toward elites. And the US is definitely not alone in this case. Back in my hometown, Beijing, it’s impossible to get a taxi ride without hearing the driver complaining how his livelihood is ruined by selfish elites. In my second hometown, Hong Kong, tens of thousands of anti-establishment protesters set up camps on the main street of Hong Kong island, right outside my dad’s office building. Because of that, by the way, he was forced to walk 30 minutes everyday to work. Surrounded by nothing but bad news, he was somewhat reassured by losing some weight. All in all, there are different causes behind these people’s discontent, but the common ground is that they attribute the wrongs of our society to the failure of elite leadership.
I am not trying to prove these criticisms are totally false. I believe that a powerful leadership by elites is what keeps our society moving. We have come a long way to where we are because we were informed and guided by great people with power. The problems we are facing right now is caused by corrupt, self-serving people among those elites rather than the system itself. We can spend a whole day arguing about this. But the most imminent problem is that most of us are bound to be elites in the future just like our parents and our society expect us to be. Elite boarding schools, particularly elite independent schools, offers a high-quality education that most Americans cannot fathom. Most of us will then attend “elite” colleges, build up our “elite” social network. Later, many of us will take advantage of our privileged education, resources and connections and end up working for the government, the Wall Street, and Silicon Valley. Our generation will soon fill the controversial class of elites. We will soon be the targets of those harsh comments. We will be blamed for not caring about the general public, we will be called greedy and selfish, and we will be viewed as the cause of all social disorders, if we don’t distinguish ourselves from those people that don’t qualify for elites yet are still among them.
So what should we do?
To begin, I urge you all to think your elite identity not as a burden or shame but rather an opportunity. Humans are not born equal. It’s harsh. Those of us at elite schools are have more privileges than others. We receive better care along our growth, and chances are, we are more likely to be the leaders of this society than others. Our ideas are more likely to make an impact because of the power, connection, and resources that we have. Our privileges can be a double-edged sword. As elites, our wisdom can benefit a larger crowd and meanwhile our stupidity can ruin it as well. It is a privilege to exert our power but we need to have more discretion about our voices and actions. Use them properly to make a difference in the world. That means we must be compelled to stay rational and inclusive to the opinions of others. One idea or action excels the other only when of them are fully and equally examined. We have to let go of our superiority not only in social class, but also in morality. I urge all of us to think of our privileges as weapons to impact the lives of others.
To be able to make a positive difference, it is critical to understand and fulfill our social responsibility, which is something very distant to us in our elite school bubbles. This was exactly what I felt, until my volunteering experience in Turkey in the past summer. After two weeks of working with a refugee organization, I realized that what has impacted me the most was not witnessing the suffering of Syrian Refugees, but rather how each of us, although from different ends of the world, are closely connected. There is a famous sociology concept called six degrees of separation. It is the idea that all people in the world are six or fewer steps away from each other. A step represents one introduction of us to someone’s social circle, and repeat it six times, we are connected with everyone in the world. I realized the the refugee crisis is our problem because, aside from our difference in ethnicity, culture, and socio-economics with those who suffer from violence and suppression, they are us, and that alone justifies our responsibility as elites. To stand up for their rights is no different from standing up for our family, friends, and love. As we are about to move into a broader stage of life, it is critical for us to realize our social responsibility and use it to guide our actions as elites.
I would like to share this quote from the Confucian work Book of Rites:
“People who want to promote great virtue to the world, should first properly govern their states; in order to govern their states, they should first accommodate their family; in order to accommodate their family, they should first cultivate their characters; in order to cultivate their characters, they should first control their mind; in order to control their mind, they should first maintain a sincere intention; in order to maintain sincere intention, they should first acquire and appreciate knowledge. To acquire and appreciate knowledge requires an inclusive and critical view of the physical world.”
So starting from today, no matter where we will end up in the future, I hope all of us know that we are capable of becoming elite in our society. Our school experience has not only taught us knowledge, but also equipped us with empathy, judgments, and morality that appeals to the public. As we move on to college and beyond, I urge you all to accept different opinions. Cultivate yourself with social responsibility. Then, exert it to your family, your friends, and people in the society. Face hysteria with rationality; face slanders with confidence. Assume no social or moral superiority over others. Do what you believe is honorable in the sight of all. A path not so bright is ahead of us, and the end of the path is unknown. But, it will be definitely be worse if we don’t take on the journey bravely. It will definitely be worse if we don’t think and act as elites for our future. Let us embrace our elite identity and make our world a better place.
Steven Li is a VI Form boarding student from Beijing, China.