The school system back in Australia is a little different, especially in how we’re tested and how we’re prepared for the college application process. Almost nothing we do before the end of “year 12” counts toward our formal assessment; no test, exam or coursework contributes to our official record as a student. Our entire education is assessed through a series of final exams at the end of senior year. What we’re left with is a national ranking, a percentile that places us among all Australian students in our cohort (e.g. 65.70, 88.35, 99.95).
Predictably, on the day that these scores are released there is a frenzy of interest in the results of friends and peers. There is one consistent rule, one overarching taboo — if you achieved a high score, you’re not to publicize. If you’re asked, by all means share, but unless you want to be perceived as palpably self-righteous and arrogant, you’ll keep it to yourself.
This phenomenon isn’t unique to Australians’ final results. Around the world, others may not always look favorably upon exceptional achievements that raise someone else above the average, from high SAT scores and GPAs to leadership positions and awards. This is sometimes dubbed “tall poppy syndrome.”
The great example that we all have in common is our future alma mater. We’re all aware of the weight behind the word “Princeton,” and we’re probably aware of the effect that the word has on others. (This isn’t the first column that alludes to it – previous authors have even gone so far as to name this effect the “P-bomb”.) Sometimes we may get a purely positive response, if others take genuine pride in our good fortune. However, more often than not it’s a conversation stopper, and it can become antagonistic.
There’s something wrong with the fact that we’re not socially allowed to be overtly proud of this achievement. Gaining admission to the University, or any elite school, represents the culmination of a great deal of effort and achievement. It’s something to be proud of, and though there’s obviously no need to run around New York in orange and black screaming the Locomotive Cheer at the top of your lungs, it’s also disgraceful to think that you should be embarrassed or even ashamed to hold up your head and say that you’re a student of the University. On the fair assumption that everyone who is a part of this university has earned it, it is absurd to suggest that we are barred from the American tradition of fierce school spirit and pride in one’s college.
The question stands as to just why tall poppy syndrome exists, why “Princeton” becomes the “P-bomb” when we struggle to share that part of our identity. It’s worth noting that not everyone will have a contention with our college affiliation. A young woman with military ambition at the United States Military Academy at West Point is not likely to prick an ear the mention of Princeton, and a person who’s halfway through a carpentry apprenticeship with every ambition of owning his own carpentry business may be perfectly pleased with his own situation, or else completely apathetic to our fortunes. It may simply be the case that people cut down tall poppies when they’re insecure about the comparison they make to themselves. For someone who is completely content with his or her own choices, achievements and ambitions, there exists no reason to respond negatively when the P-bomb gets dropped.
Or is there another reason? Princeton is one of America’s greatest vessels of privilege, and every one of us, despite the hard work, enjoys four years of a relatively comfortable and enriching lifestyle. Some people may be perfectly content with their own lot, but they can also be bothered by the fact that we are able to obtain an experience that is denied to most people in the world. If that is the case, then my earlier assumption that hostility is the product of insecurity would become incredibly aggravating and unduly condescending.
The most important question then is whether or not we deserve the education we’re getting and the lifestyle and opportunities we experience every day. I believe that the years of effort, dedication and sacrifice through academics, service and co-curricular endeavors that earned us our places here means that we do indeed deserve Princeton, and we deserve to be proud of it.
Of course, some people find themselves in a socioeconomic, geographical or political position that compromises any chance they may have of ever getting into Princeton, regardless of merit. It is for this reason that for every moment we’re proud of being at Princeton, we should also be grateful, aware and respectful of the fact that in the end, we were all positioned in some way to have this life as a possibility. Pride ought to run hand in hand with respect and humility, and achieving that is the key to turning the P-bomb into a well-received “Princeton.”
Samuel Parsons is a freshman from Wangaratta, Australia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.