Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
Some of you may have seen my jeremiad last week against the preferential treatment of so-called “legacies” in US university admissions. Legacy: one whose parent(s) or some other relative(s) attended the institution to which he or she is applying. As longstanding practice, most elite US colleges admit legacy students on a much more lenient basis than non-legacy ones. At Harvard, it is statistically nearly six times easier to get in as legacy than non-legacy.
I’ve been chewing over this idea of legacy. Of course the very idea offends many of us, offends our sense of fairness. Certainly it offends me.
On the other hand, the notion of heritage, of being who we are and accomplishing what we accomplish because of who our parents are, seems to me fundamental to human nature.
Certainly it is tied up in the stories we tell. Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell both noted the importance of the “father search” in the heroic myth. The “Freudian romance,” foundational to storytelling around the world, has a young protagonist growing up under the care of ostensible parents who — he is convinced — aren’t his real parents. He then embarks on a heroic quest, on which he discovers that his true parentage is far nobler than his false parents. The young hero then comes into possession of his powers, which derive from his identity, and even acquires noble status.
King Arthur is the son of King Uther Pendragon, but as a child he was raised by Sir Ector. When he pulls Excalibur from the stone, he discovers his royal lineage and becomes king.
Harry Potter is living under the care of boorish Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia when he gets invited to attend Hogwarts. There, he discovers that his parents James and Lily Potter were great wizards. And it turns out that his power to defeat Voldemort was endowed in him when he was only a baby, not on the basis of any achievement of his own but by virtue of his mother’s love.
Luke Skywalker grows up under Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru, a farming couple. But then because of his privileged background, he gains a private tutor in the form of Obi-Wan Kenobi. Then he learns over time that he is actually the son of the greatest Jedi ever and a queen. With that knowledge, he becomes a Jedi master himself.
Legacy candidates, all of them.
And I haven’t even gotten to Jesus of Nazareth, the ultimate legacy candidate. Raised by a carpenter as his false father, he got declared King of Kings and Lord of Lords just because his real father turned out to be God. Talk about a shoo-in.
Our Enlightenment-born notions of fairness insist in our conscious minds that it is wrong for some people to enjoy all the power and resources of our society just because of who their parents are. But the narrative part of the human soul clearly longs not so much for fairness as to be the chosen one in a world that is in fact largely determined by accidents of birth.
I myself have written in the past about how I like to remember that my surname was once a royal name, even if I know of zero evidence demonstrating that my family might be descended from that royal line. More broadly, I have always believed that it is important for us to know where we come from, that from the examples of our ancestors we can draw strength that can help us face the future.
The contemporary popularity of DNA ancestry testing is also a reflection of this deep-seated human desire to connect with the past, with our forebears. It seems to me an implicit expression of what’s long been made explicit in the Chinese tradition of ancestor-worship.
Those genealogical recitations in the Bible: “And unto Enoch was born Irad: and Irad begat Mehujael: and Mehujael begat Methusael: and Methusael begat Lamech.” (Gen. 4:18.) Read them out loud, and all the names begin to take on incantatory qualities, like magical spells.
Legacies shouldn’t get preferential treatment. But we all want to be legacies. And on some level, we all are.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."