The months from December to April are, in many households with high-school-age teens, filled with degrees of fear ranging from palpable nervousness to sleeplessness to sheer sweat-inducing terror. Across the United States, young people who should be looking forward to life with excitement instead wait anxiously to hear about their college applications. This is a country that—unlike, say, Denmark—does not think that education should be free and equally available to all, so the stakes of what comes in the envelope are high. These young people’s entire lives have been in preparation for this moment, in which they face either humiliation or elation when their preferred schools will inform them if, yes, the years of extra dance classes and soup kitchen duties were not for naught. For millions of teens. the onset of adulthood has been marked by a constant worship of the Unseen Application Gods, an indoctrination process that happens to be an excellent way of easing a person into a lifelong habit of deference toward authority.
These days, as we know, it is not enough to merely be clever. It is not enough to have taken forty AP classes, or excelled on your standardized tests. You must have something extra, something special. Did you think Columbia was going to be impressed by your grades? You poor kid. The Ivies reject 9/10 of their applicants. They’ll want to see something more than that. Oh, you’re an intelligent and capable person who would do quite well there and is very nice? Join the queue. What is it they want? Good luck figuring it out.
Since his brief moment of Twitter Fame (a unit of time lasting about half the flap of a hummingbird’s wings), Ziad Ahmed has drifted back into the internet ether. But Ahmed had figured out what they wanted. On April 1, the 18-year-old Princeton area native and Muslim-American activist tweeted out that he had been accepted into Stanford. He displayed a picture of the answer he had provided to one of the application questions: “What matters to you and why?” Instead of the more traditional use of “sentences” and “paragraphs,” Ahmed had simply written the phrase“ #Black Lives Matter” a hundred times. It was bold, it worked, and it got him on NBC News. The predictable reactions flowed from all quarters: Linda Sarsour, a nationally known Muslim American activist, tweeted her support, while on the right there was much grousing about the loss of standards and “identity politics” trumping quality.
Given his youth and his ethnicity, there is no way to write about Ziad Ahmed without being criticized, censured, and called evil. The situation is a bit like defusing a bomb, as we see it in the movies. One crossed wire, the red one cut instead of the yellow, and we blow ourselves to bits. So, one treads carefully. After all Ahmed is eighteen, eighteen years old, a mere child, some might argue. And he seems so dreadfully earnest that it seems cruel to be critical of him. What’s to hate about a young man who has been photographed holding a sign that lays out his politics that reads: “I stand against racism because it is my responsibility as a human to oppose oppression, dehumanization and systematic detrimental discrimination, which is unfair, moronic, and wrong.” It is all of those things, and good for him for standing against them.
But Ahmed is no ordinary activist teen. The son of a hedge fund manager with his own firm, he attended the prestigious Princeton Day School. At the tender age of thirteen, he founded a nonprofit organization called “Redefy,” “committed to defying stereotypes, redefining perspectives positively, embracing acceptance and tolerance…” Its exact work and accomplishments are somewhat unclear (it has something to do with hosting workshops about stereotypes), but Ahmed’s commitment to redefining perspectives earned him profiles in major media publications and an invitation to the White House, where Barack Obama praised his work. Ahmed didn’t stop at Redefy: along with two other teenagers who shared his interest in “business, marketing, and philanthropy” (note which comes first and which comes third), he also created JÜV Consulting, a firm designed to help corporations understand “Generation Z.” For $1000 to $5000 per client, JÜV will tell companies “how likely we are to like your brand, follow your social media accounts, or buy your products.” Ahmed’s consulting and nonprofit work has landed him on MTV’s list of the “Top 9 Teens Changing the World” and Business Insider’s “Top 15 Prodigies.” And Stanford wasn’t the only college impressed; according to his Twitter page (@ZiadTheActivist), the cover photo of which shows Ahmed performing—what else?—a TED talk. In the fall he’ll be joining Yale’s class of 2021.
The Twitter handle says it all, really. “Ziad The Activist” is a brand, and a very successful one so far. Activist for what, exactly? For change, of course. The particular type of change can be tailored to suit the client’s needs.
Ziad Ahmed can tell us something about both the contemporary elite university and the political worldview that both simultaneously creates it and emerges from it. First, Ahmed’s story shows how the viciously competitive nature of the admissions process breeds ludicrous acts. When scholastic excellence isn’t enough, the children of the wealthy found consulting firms and nonprofits and throw whatever else they possibly can at the Yale admissions committee. None of it actually does much of anything, and most of it will probably be abandoned soon after the start of freshman year, but the dance must be performed. After all, you may be competing against a student with three TED talks or four nonprofits, so you’d better at least have one of each.
This is perverse, of course: one’s teenage years should be a time for simply getting to explore and understand the world. Generally, teenagers probably shouldn’t be founding consulting firms, not just because nobody should found consulting firms, but because teenagers don’t actually know anything yet. That’s not a slight against them, any more than it is to point out that newborns don’t have teeth or that kittens have trouble playing musical instruments. When you’re a teenager, you’re still working out your place in the world and how it functions (admittedly a lifetime endeavour for all of us, but the teen years are particularly fraught): it’s just in your nature. Demanding that teenagers show world-changing brilliance is, except in the rarest of cases, demanding the impossible. This kind of pressure doesn’t cause you to get a slew of applicants with unique moral goodness and historic accomplishment, it causes your existing applicants to puff themselves up as much as possible. In fact, there is a direct incentive not to actually try to do something worthwhile: the most successful candidates will be those with the most impressive-looking resumes, not those who have most improved the lives of their fellow human beings, so the rational thing to do is to spend one’s time doing nine impressive-sounding but superficial things rather than one less-impressive-sounding but socially helpful thing.
This vicious competitive marketplace now exists at every level of the university. For prospective undergrads, it is a Hunger Games scenario—show us how unique you are or you die—that compels kids like Ahmed to come up with ever-new tactics in order to impress. But even PhD-holding candidates looking for tenure-track positions face the dreaded “diversity statement,” which, while ostensibly intended to ensure equal opportunity, ends up as a high-pressure demand for applicants to prove that they are not only good for the position, but that they are special as well.
In a just world, of course, you could simply study and learn and that would be that. If you wanted to go to college, you would enroll in courses that interested you. To the extent that there was an “application” process, it would exist entirely to ensure that you had the basic capability necessary for participating in the program. Teenagers would be encouraged to spend their time both learning and serving the community, but one’s life outcomes wouldn’t be contingent on having to prove at the age of 17 that one had learned the most of anyone and served the community more than anybody else. People’s performance would be measured against their individual goals and capacities rather than in some brutal death-match against their peers.
But as a college degree becomes more and more necessary for economic success, and the selective schools become ever more selective, that “just world” slips further and further away. We are approaching the point where it seems laughable and utopian to imagine a university as anything other than an anxiety factory, the function of which is solely to train future workers for the even more anxiety-inducing competitive struggle they will soon face in the labor market.
Ziad Ahmed can tell us about more than just the nature of the university admissions process, however. He’s also a parable about how activism itself has changed. Consider the hashtag application: #BlackLivesMatter, 100 times over. We know that words spoken over and over steadily lose their meanings. Here, #BlackLivesMatter is emptied of all substantive content. It no longer has anything to do with black lives. Instead it is simply a chant: “I am good. Admit me. I am good. Admit me.” #BlackLivesMatter does not mean that black lives matter, it means that I care about the right things and have allied myself with the correct cause. The phrase “virtue signaling” is often erroneously used by the right to trivialize and dismiss people with sincere and principled beliefs. But it’s undoubtedly true that when politics is reduced to the display of a hashtag, when one can be an activist without performing any actual activity, slogans can become brands rather than demands.
Perhaps one should blame Barack Obama for this. Ahmed’s political worldview seems to be part Obama, part Warren Buffett: vacuous civil rights rhetoric plus vacuous “progressive” corporate rhetoric. Obama was the one who finally sapped the last substantive content from the words “hope” and “change,” and who used racial inclusion as a way of justifying the status quo. Obama was politics as image and iconography rather than power and policy, precisely the sensibility that Ahmed has inherited. Obama’s realization was the same one that corporate America had about the counterculture: if you incorporated the images of radical politics, without any actual threat to the existing power structure, you could produce a version of progressive politics that Wall Street would love. You could feel like a good person and get rich at the same time.
It’s interesting that Ahmed finally settled on Yale, of all universities. After all, Yale is the epicenter of American inequality. Situated in high-poverty, mostly black New Haven, it is a gated fortress of the wealthy, funneling the children of the elite into cushy financial jobs. It’s also the site of heavy labor conflict, with graduate students recently engaging in a hunger strike amidst a drive for unionization. And it’s a place where the legacy of slavery hangs heavy. It took years for Yale to even acknowledge that naming one of its colleges, Calhoun, after an infamous defender of slavery was, in effect, defending his practices and politics (it has recently been renamed). And last year, black Yale janitor Corey Menafee was arrested after smashing a stained glass window depicting happy slaves picking cotton. (Menafee had been fed up with having to look at the window every day while sweeping the floors.)
We might wonder if Ahmed, having entered the belly of the beast, is likely to be radicalized by the sight of all these contradictions. Will he emerge from his four years fighting to bring down the very walls he and his parents spent so many years scaling? I will confess that I gaze upon him with one eyebrow slightly raised. I’m not encouraged by someone who had founded a consulting firm by the age of thirteen, even if the word “activist” is in his Twitter handle and even if MTV is convinced he will change the world. (I am betting the odds are >50% that he will end up working in finance.)
It’s hard to blame Ahmed himself, though. He is simply the product of a political logic that has saturated the university. Yes, his use of the hashtag seems exploitative and self-serving. But it’s also a product of a type of university that wants the simultaneous demonstration of fealty and individuality, and wants to appear progressive without incurring any possible risk to its existing structure. Yale wants activists, but preferably activists who go to the Aspen Ideas Conference to talk about why black lives matter, rather than activists who actually want to take Yale’s money away or disrupt its jobs pipeline. Ahmed is perfect, then: consultant by day, activist by night, friend of Obama, and completely unthreatening. Nobody can accuse the university of backward racial politics: after all, they let in a student who wrote #BlackLivesMatter a hundred times! At the same time, New Haven will still be New Haven and Yale will still be Yale. You might ride the hashtag through the institution’s gates, but the question is how to tear them down.
More of Yasmin Nair’s writing is available in our new paperback essay collection “The Current Affairs Mindset.”