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Wednesday May 9, 2001

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More than what society has made us

With a turn of the tassel on a mortarboard cap, thousands of students this week will symbolize that they have completed at least this phase of their education. Their diploma places a stamp of approval on them, signifying they have been measured to some standard and passed. Graduation is an act of ego, a claim to be - in some sense - better than those who have not received a diploma.

Of course, many would blanch at such a description. In America, our greatest fear is that someone will hold us responsible for some measure of success. We apologize for it, afraid that we will somehow be accused of cheating. There are many worthy people in society, the theory goes - everyone equal to everyone else; thus, if you have accomplished more than someone else, you have upset the balance of nature - done something wrong. Your success, it is argued, debases your fellow man.

This is by no means a fringe argument - rather, it is the dominant ideology of our society. For the last 40 years, work in social justice has largely been a response to John Rawls, who argued justice can only come with a recognition that the achievements of an individual are really the property of society as a whole. You cannot claim your success is the result of anything you did. It is a result of luck: you had better parents, you were born in a better part of town, you were born in a richer country, you were born male, you were born white. Our successes have nothing to do with us - and thus, it is right that we should apologize for gaining anything that is not also available to everyone else.

Indeed, there are many within the university who would agree with such an argument. They argue that individual achievement is an impossibility in a society that is racist and sexist. With the advent of affirmative action, even those from disadvantaged groups can no longer claim their achievements had anything to do with themselves as individuals. Everyone, it seems, it replaceable.

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