Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
August 12, 2020

Our student body has an inferiority complex

By JACQUI NEBER | October 5, 2017

For a school full of academically accomplished people, Hopkins is a school with an inferiority complex. This is a strange complex to claim and an even stranger one to prove. There are no statistics that can speak to the crippling anxieties and tendencies toward comparison that run through our campus.

Few people have spoken freely about pressure to succeed, or the pressure to succeed in the context of our environment. Everyone jokes about their insecurity, but students rarely have serious conversations about its origin.

This complex has many layers. We’re constantly comparing ourselves to each other through test scores, majors, internships and job offers. We’re also constantly comparing Hopkins to our peer institutions. And perhaps the weirdest facet of our problem: We justify our insecurity with hubris.

We’re not as good as Harvard. But wait, everyone at Harvard graduates with a inflated GPAs. We fight an uphill battle against grade deflation. So, we must be better somehow!

We’re aggressively defensive about our status as one of the hardest schools out there, and this aggression breeds insecurity on many other fronts. We can’t seem to win, and our insecurity becomes a double-edged sword, one that somehow perfectly sums up this school. It’s all a trap.

Maybe our insecurity stems from our original sin: coming to Hopkins. This culture or complex could be a classic example of thousands of big fish struggling to stay afloat in this challenging pond. We all come from the top of our high school classes, and here we need to work even harder to make it to the top quarter of the class. We worry we will not be enough.

Maybe the inferiority complex is institutional, coming from not just the disappearance of covered grades but from the high standards Hopkins sets for its students. Maybe the University does nothing to remedy our insecurity and instead reinforces our collective ideology with every deflated GPA and newest class it admits.

Maybe it’s here, but it’s not unique to us.

A University of Chicago Maroon article describes exactly what I’m writing about now. We all know Chicago as the place where “fun goes to die,” but apparently it’s also the place where students worry about their relative intelligence. The author, Matt Barnum, discusses conversations students would define as being “So U of C,” and the bashful way they apply that label.

Barnum thinks being self conscious about being smart is both false and harmful. At Chicago, they fear also how smart kids are at Harvard and they think they’re better than kids at Harvard because everyone at Chicago needs to work harder. Barnum finds the insecurity of his own student body “embarrassingly obvious.”

There it is: insecurity stemming from what students are not and what students are. Barnum wrote “Inferiority complex is so U of C” in 2005.

Clearly, inferiority complexes are not unique to Hopkins, and they’re not even new. The University of Chicago is a foil for our own layered issues. Our collective complex, like that of Chicago, has existed for a long time, and it won’t go away by itself.

It would be idealistic and ridiculous to tell you to cease the comparison on any level. It would also be ridiculous to remind students that they are smart. The point of this is that we know we’re smart, and we should be neither insecure nor arrogant about it.

At this point in our relationship with deep-seeded insecurity, we should tread lightly but ask questions. We need to not only recognize this complex problem for what it is but work to reform some of the aspects of Hopkins life that perpetuate a culture of inferiority.

It’s worth mentioning that no one talks about this collective inferiority complex, but everyone I spoke to in the formation of this article immediately identified it as a pervasive issue. It’s here. We feel it.

They say the first stage of healing is acceptance. There’s a fine line between humbleness and insecurity, between confidence and arrogance. It exists somewhere on this campus and in our own psyches. We just need to find it.

Jacqui Neber is a senior Writing Seminars major from Northport, N.Y. She is the Opinions Editor.

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