Every time I drive up the hill to Kenyon and am faced with the gothic stone buildings enveloped in towering trees, I am left in awe that this strange, mystical haven is a real place. However, I also can never shake the uncanny resemblance of Kenyon, an elite academic institution literally situated on a hill, with John Winthrop’s infamous words spoken in 1630 to a newly established Puritan community in Massachusetts, in which he declares their community to be a “city upon a hill” — a standard for how civilization ought to function for the rest of the world. While I believe no students have delusions that this school is a feasible model for ordinary civilization, I cannot help but notice how Winthrop’s sermon is evoked in Kenyon’s existence on a hill in a spot of metaphorical superiority.
Kenyon’s student body includes some of the wealthiest people in the United States. In a 2017 New York Times study, Kenyon is listed as one of 38 schools in the U.S. where more students come from families in the top one percent than from families in the bottom 60 percent. According to this study, 19.8 percent of students at Kenyon are from the top one percent while only 12.2 percent of students come from the bottom 60 percent. The isolation of this wealthy student body only enhances the stratification between campus and the surrounding Mount Vernon community, a disproportionately low income area relative to Kenyon. I do not seek to condemn or guilt-trip wealthy students. Rather, I believe it is important to reflect on our attitudes and behaviors toward residents that may exacerbate class inequality and inadvertently create a patronizing power dynamic.
Wealth at Kenyon is rarely flaunted in traditional ways such as designer brands and fancy cars. Instead, it reveals itself in the subtleties of social groups and specific ‘images.’ Walking through campus, it is not hard to pick up on the ubiquity of off-beat outfits comprised of thrifted clothes, expensive mom jeans, Blundstones and Doc Martens. While, on one hand, this “dressed-down” thrifted style is more accessible, it can also be a signal of wealth. When one has never had to prove their wealth, and instead has the security of their upper-class standing, they have the liberty to express themselves and dress however they please. The class status of wealthy people allows them to popularize thrifted and hand-me-down clothes, turning poverty into an aesthetic by appropriating the cool grit and ‘authenticity’ of impoverished people.
The absence of superfluous displays of wealth on campus may be preferable to people flaunting it, but the way wealth insidiously disguises itself on campus is just as conducive to the perpetuation of inequality. While there is nothing inherently wrong with “dressing-down” (a statement that would be hypocritical of me to make considering most of my clothes are from thrift stores and I wear Doc Martens everyday), when we don’t see traditional signals of wealth, it is easier to ignore the extremity of our privilege, especially relative to the Mount Vernon community. We can blindly and willfully hide in our sanctuary on a hill, wearing our clothes thrifted from Goodwill without taking the time to question how we can make an effort to alleviate drastic economic inequality. I have heard and partaken in conversations that belittle Mount Vernon: joking about the depleted town and commenting on the “sketchy” area while simultaneously having photoshoots in the Walmart parking lot. Interacting with the community solely by aestheticizing the rural lifestyle makes students seem aloof and out of touch, feeding into tropes of liberal superiority complexes and further breeding resentment of liberal arts students among the rural population.
We can ease this antagonism by taking the time to genuinely engage with the community with an open mind. Organizations, groups and individuals from Kenyon have connected with the community in ways that have been meaningful and transformative for both students and local residents, including volunteering in elementary schools in Mount Vernon and Gambier, attending an English seminar taught at a men’s state prison in Mansfield and working at local hospitals and shelters. We have to make this form of engagement the norm, not the exception; the stakes of doing nothing are too high. Rather than upholding a nation-wide pattern of class isolation — thus amplifying contempt for people who live and look differently — we must get down from the Hill.