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Reckoning with Bowdoin’s elitism

February 7, 2020

As a sports fan, I am not someone who is offended easily. I believe in boo-ing a bad ref and have no problem with a rowdy crowd. I was at Fenway Park for Alex Rodriguez’s final game in Boston, and I made it on to the big screen holding a giant asterisk, in an attempt to remind Rodriguez of his impending legacy as a cheater.

However, on Saturday, I found myself disappointed in the annual chants of “safety school” at the Bowdoin-Colby hockey game. I wasn’t exactly surprised by the elitism on display, but it made me reflect on what, exactly, it means to attend an institution like Bowdoin.

The public high school I attended in Cambridge, Mass. was a great place to go to school. Our school was well-funded, diverse and had a tight-knit community. But, one could argue, the best part was our basketball team. It was dominant—so dominant that during my junior and senior years, not only did we win the State D1 Championships back-to-back, we were undefeated for the entire span.

In the hunt for those two championships, we left our league and played in the state tournaments against a number of teams from wealthier and less diverse suburbs. I don’t mean to brag, but on those runs there were not very many close games. As we would run up the score, blocking shots that would fly into the bleachers, something ugly would consistently happen: the opposing student sections would change their chants to attack non-athletic aspects of our school.

Kyra Tan

“S-A-T Scooores.” Or “We go to college.” In reference to our comparatively lower average SAT scores and the percentage of our students that attend four-year colleges after graduation. We were also playing against a lot of teams that were entirely white, from schools that were majority white, with a team that was overwhelmingly black. It didn’t take long for these chants to become racially-motivated. But the underlying thesis of the chants always seemed to be: “We don’t care if you beat us at basketball, we’re going to be your bosses one day.”

These were the memories that flooded back to me on Saturday at Watson Arena, but it was different now. I was on the other side. Now, at Bowdoin, I am attending a school that largely embraces elitism and the idea of trying to be better than others, not only at sports, but at life. Instead of measuring field goal percentage or batting average, we have decided to measure success through statistics like our acceptance rate and a graduate’s average starting salary.

Of course, Colby is not particularly similar to my high school, and poking fun at them is more innocent because, as a college in the NESCAC, they enjoy many of the same privileges as Bowdoin. But I still think that our chants prove my point—we go to a college that is deluded by the idea that we are better than others because of arbitrary circumstances.

Very few things outside of a rink (or a field or a court) are actually a meritocracy, and it shows a profound lack of self-confidence to reference and brag about acceptance rates or college rankings. We are here because we were exceptionally lucky: lucky that we were born in the right place, lucky that we had a great teacher who stayed after school to help us or a parent who would read to us at night and lucky that a Bowdoin admissions officer happened to like our personal essays. If we need to put down the worth of other schools, not simply the skills of their athletes, to feel good about ourselves—if we need to embrace elitism just to satisfy our insecurities—then we don’t deserve to win a hockey game. There are a million ways to live a good life and the vast majority have nothing to do with where you attend college.

I don’t want to tell anyone what to do. And, at future games, I will continue to remind the Colby Mules of their sterility even (especially) if they continue to run up the score on our Polar Bears. But I think it’s important to critically reflect on how we, as students entering a deeply flawed and unequal world, measure our self-worth. Is it measured by feeling superior to others? If you need that to feel good about yourself, then you should rethink your version of success.

Diego Lasarte is a member of the Class of 2022. 


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  1. Class of '22 says:

    Thank you. This is something that has needed to be said for a long time. I felt the same exact way at this game, and the fact that I identified myself with this display of privilege and disrespect made me feel disgusting. Assuming that Colby students are inherently less intelligent than Bowdoin students is degenerate in every way imaginable, and not one of us has the right to assert themselves over someone else in that way. I can understand friendly jest in the NESCAC as they are all rivals, but demeaning on the basis of intelligence is beneath us, at least that’s what I’ve been lead to believe.

    A lot of discussion on campus revolves around the idea of breaking stereotypes and prejudices around race, gender, ability, etc. Why is this any different? These chants are something we’ve been doing for years. Just because “it’s tradition” doesn’t mean its right. They do not have a place in our community, if we are the great institution we claim to be. The administration has not done anything to counteract it, and that means they think it’s acceptable behavior. I hope that we collectively find some dignity and put an end to this.

  2. Class of '21 says:

    I’m not sure if this chant made it into this year’s game, but I have also heard Bowdoin students characterize Colby as “UMaine Waterville.” I think this is an even clearer indication of our elitism – not only are we trying to insult Colby, we are asserting that Maine’s state schools are inherently inferior to our exclusive little liberal arts college. I know a lot of really smart, driven people who attend UMaine and it’s always a bit jarring for me to hear a crowd slam our public institutions like that.

  3. Ellie Haugen says:

    When I visited Bowdoin this fall to see if I wanted to apply, I immediately sensed a ton of elitism. My overnight hosts bragged about the other colleges they got into that they turned down and bonded over legacy status, and it just really turned me off. This is a world where Birkenstocks are considered “shower shoes”. I’m low-income and I just felt like I couldn’t belong at Bowdoin. Maybe I got paired with the wrong social circle, but at the other LACs I visited with higher acceptance rates, I saw so much more humility and openness among the students. You all have to understand that the attitudes described in this article are pushing away potential students.

  4. Recent Grad says:

    Yawn, this boring article again? A nearly word-for-word repeat of this article gets written almost every single year in the Orient. This point has been beaten to death for years and frankly not enough people care or will ever care to change this. I know Bowdoin students hate to hear this (so did I as a student!), but once you’re in the “real world” post-college, this useless virtue signaling become laughable. If you think chanting “safety school” during a rivalry game is this big of a deal, you should listen to the exchanges that takes place at any well-attended athletic contest in this country and abroad. In the grand scheme of things, “safety school” really is quite gentle and I doubt that many Colby students are deeply hurt by it. “UMaine Waterville” is slightly more problematic.

    I was also surprised by the author’s lack of self-awareness here. His points regarding attacks on a school’s economic or racial diversity are true, but is this the voice needed? The annual household income in Cambridge is nearly 35% higher than the national average. It is a very privileged town in many ways.

    Again, yawn. Can’t wait to see this article again next winter!

  5. Andrea Vandeven says:

    fabulous essay!

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