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What we can learn from the Scott Newman controversy

<h5>Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian</h5>
Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian

By now, many in the Princeton community have already borne witness to the saga of Scott Newman ’21 in some way or another. Perhaps you’ve read the publicly available chapters of his memoir, “The Night Before the Morning After,” in which he recounts tales of his adolescence and time at the University. Maybe you’ve watched his promotional video, or skimmed the New York Post’s coverage, or pored over the hundreds of comments on his recent posts in Ivy League meme Facebook pages.

From any angle, it is easy to see that Newman’s book publicity has hit a nerve, as his depiction of Princeton as a soul-sucking and corrupting institution has struck many as reductive and inaccurate. While some have been tempted to dismiss Newman’s testimonial altogether, understanding the controversy generated by its very existence might shed light on something we can all learn from as members of the community he seems intent on demeaning.

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Read in one light, Newman’s account paints a fairly innocuous picture of a naïve young person whose short-term ambitions have repeatedly gotten in the way of his long-term goals. But there is a critical omission in Newman’s public telling of this story: his own agency in navigating a system he condemns as corrupting and beyond repair. 

Practicing selective disregard for the role of students in forging their educational and professional paths can lead to dangerous cycles of cynicism and disempowerment. Meanwhile, neglecting the mutability of culture at institutions like Princeton superficially absolves us of our responsibility to push for change when we identify real institutional failures. We should view these forces with a critical eye when we encounter them, in Newman’s testimonial and elsewhere.

In his book and his interview with the Post, Newman concedes that his approach to navigating high school was disproportionately informed by his anxiety about college admissions. He reflects on his heavy extracurricular involvement, including service-oriented pursuits, as ultimately self-interested; he characterizes his summer activities as “resume padding.”

The college admissions rat race has fueled these types of investments for many high schoolers, even as institutions of higher education have attempted to defuse the mania. A near-universal fixation on a handful of “elite” colleges has long left high schoolers and their families searching high and low for the key to guaranteed admission, often with significant psychological consequences

But Newman’s approach to college admissions — described by the Post as a “deeply cynical exercise in résumé padding, flattery and playing an angle” — was still a choice.

In Chapter Five of his book, he offers a somber reflection on that period of his life: “I never really pursued what I loved. I never took the time to even try and figure out what that was. I robbed myself of the adolescent high school experience I could’ve gotten.” In other words: whatever Newman’s ideal high school experience might have comprised, its attainment was made impossible, in large part, by Newman’s own value judgements at the time.

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This seems like a point with which many of us might be able to sympathize. It is not uncommon for young people to harbor uncertainties about their own goals, or to misjudge and later reconsider the value of their life plans.

But Newman fails to extend this reflection beyond his high school graduation, assuming a decidedly different tone in describing his path through Princeton. 

The Post’s coverage of his book is framed as an exposé of “the unfriendly, uninspired and corporatized culture on [Princeton’s] campus — where prestige-intoxicated students are groomed for soul-crushing careers in investment banking, consulting and tech.” Newman figures as a victim of this culture, lured toward banking as “the thing to do” after a short time at Princeton.

Newman himself demonstrates a similarly passive self-perception in his memoir. “Princeton, at least to a degree, made me into a social-climbing weasel,” he writes. “Like everyone else, I got sucked into the vortex — going to all the dinners, sending all the follow-up networking emails and taking for granted that investment banking was where I was headed. Eventually, I had the willpower to pull myself out, but it wasn’t easy.”

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Where is the agency here?

Newman seems determined to blame the institution for drawing him away from his passion for writing, even though his navigation of Princeton is just an extension of the kind of autonomy he exercised in strategizing his way into the school in the first place. 

Moreover, unpacking Newman’s claims demonstrates their fragility.

Identifying a singular, ubiquitous “culture” at Princeton is impossible, given the diverse backgrounds and varied proclivities of the student body. Certainly, there are groups of students linked by similar interests or career trajectories, and Newman may have found himself in a pocket of Princeton where he was pushed toward banking. But that possibility is hardly indicative of a fundamental character flaw at the institution. 

Students at every university have the option to pursue jobs in banking, consulting, and tech, and to adjust their social and academic arrangements in accordance with those goals. Students at every university also have the option to avoid these paths and surround themselves with people engaged in different types of work.

Had he so desired, of course, Newman could easily have found plenty of avenues for embracing his passion for writing during his four years at Princeton. Around just about every corner lies a plethora of opportunities for meaningful social, cultural, artistic, and academic engagement that have nothing to do with banking. Even if none of the hundreds of student groups, dozens of academic programs, or countless summer volunteer and internship positions that the University offers appealed to him, Newman could have started his own initiative or even looked beyond the Orange Bubble for opportunities.

But instead, he chose to stay put — and cry wolf. “A lot of Princeton students started out wanting to be doctors or do good in the world,” Newman said in the Post article. “But that goes away really quickly under the pressure to work in the Holy Trinity of banking, consulting or tech.” 

In actuality, plenty of Princeton students remain committed to social causes they care about throughout and far beyond their undergraduate years. Some of these students pass through the lines of work he maligns on their way to different careers; others actually find fulfillment in those jobs, unconcerned with the sort of “prestige orgasm” that Newman insists is at the root of their motivations.

At the end of the day, Newman’s decision to remain within his narrow social bounds reveals little more than his own acceptance of the status quo. His choice to shed the shackles of a career in banking illustrates a misjudgment and eventual reconsideration of his own values, parallel to the one he made in high school. And his emergence into a newfound confidence about a career in writing in his senior year tells us simply that the cultural stranglehold he described may not have been so tight after all.

Even if we accept Newman’s premise — that there is an ingrained culture of social climbing and resume-padding at Princeton — the type of renunciation he performs won’t get us far. Attributing personal decisions to a vague abstraction of institutional culture drives complacency and cynicism. Indeed, Newman’s approach to writing and promoting his memoir represents the easy way out: glorifying his own path to ostensible enlightenment while making no effort to meaningfully address the problems he sees as endemic to the Princeton community. 

As members of that very community, we should take a different path. It starts with an acknowledgement that cultures and subcultures at Princeton are not static, and that we are not powerless to affect change when we identify elements of those cultures that we see as harmful. Tireless work by student activists has demonstrated this reality; although Princeton’s administration is often bogged down by a bureaucratic morass of committees and subcommittees, change can and does happen

Newman’s testimonial is, at best, a reminder that finding oneself within a diverse and complex institution like Princeton is hard. But it is also a signal of the dangers of misattribution.

Being responsible members of the Princeton community means taking ownership of our choices, affording our peers respect for their individuality and agency to navigate the space differently than we do, and using our voices when we take issue with our surroundings.

The urgency of institutional change will sometimes demand organized advocacy. But in smaller-scale circumstances that unsettle us, initiating honest conversations with our peers may often be the most direct means to change. After all, the people make the place, and we have direct and unparalleled access to the people. Leaning into these dialogues — more than any book deal can — will help us to create a Princeton that is ever more fulfilling for those who succeed us.

Remy Reya is a senior in the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs. He can be reached at jreya@princeton.edu.

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