competition, education, journalism, money

Getting In


For a long time, when people asked me where I go, or went, to college, my first response was “New Hampshire,” or even, “New England.” Then they would slowly zero in: which school, or which town, until: Dartmouth.

I abandoned that initial answer too long after I had started getting the question. While I thought I was avoiding the obnoxious and overbearing pride of the Ivy Leaguer by not immediately admitting my affiliation, the avoidance began to seem self-consciously coy and precious, subtly inviting the inquisitor to continue peeling away, with growing anticipation, the layers of obfuscation. It was like Barthes’s strip tease. The final revelation was not always a great letdown, but, like the strip tease’s denouement, it sometimes was. Of course, coming from Alaska (as in many places west of Ohio), every second or third person did not know what or where Dartmouth was, so a regional response was often a very appropriate answer.

The issue of Ivy League designations is meaningful to me again because I recently had the choice of graduate programs at Columbia University and the University of California at Berkeley. I believe that some people who were in the same situation picked Columbia, in large part because it is an Ivy League school (though that factor often went carefully unmentioned). By the way, that’s Columbia’s Low Library pictured above. I think it was Nick Lemann who pointed out when I was there that it is a library with no books.

Last October, Malcolm Gladwell, who brings revelatory sociology to the masses, published a story on the Ivy League mystique in the New Yorker. In particular, he described how the Ivy League has effectively branded itself as a high-demand, low-supply luxury, the result of various admissions practices that are themselves remnants of early 20th century policies stemming from conceptions of race, class, ethnicity, and morphology. The article also acts as a roundabout review of the book The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton by Jerome Karabel (who happens to be a sociologist at Berkeley).

Gladwell is Canadian, and applied to college using a very simple form that took him about ten minutes. The college admissions process, for him, was not the nail-biting, mind-bending, perspective-warping experience it often is for Americans. He writes:

Am I a better or more successful person for having been accepted at the University of Toronto, as opposed to my second or third choice? It strikes me as a curious question. In Ontario, there wasn’t a strict hierarchy of colleges. There were several good ones and several better ones and a number of programs—like computer science at the University of Waterloo—that were world-class. But since all colleges were part of the same public system and tuition everywhere was the same (about a thousand dollars a year, in those days), and a B average in high school pretty much guaranteed you a spot in college, there wasn’t a sense that anything great was at stake in the choice of which college we attended. The issue was whether we attended college, and—most important—how seriously we took the experience once we got there. I thought everyone felt this way. You can imagine my confusion, then, when I first met someone who had gone to Harvard.There was, first of all, that strange initial reluctance to talk about the matter of college at all—a glance downward, a shuffling of the feet, a mumbled mention of Cambridge. “Did you go to Harvard?” I would ask. I had just moved to the United States. I didn’t know the rules. An uncomfortable nod would follow. Don’t define me by my school, they seemed to be saying, which implied that their school actually could define them. And, of course, it did. . . .

from “Getting In,” New Yorker, October 10, 2005.

Does it? That is one question I had to ask myself when choosing between Berkeley and Columbia. Later in the article, Gladwell discusses the research of a pair of economists, Alan Krueger and Stacy Dale. According to their work, if a student gets into a selective school as well as a less selective one, and then chooses the second option, he or she does as well in life as those who go to the more selective school. I find that a reassuring fact.

There is a big difference here between the choice that that research describes and my choice: namely, I was not choosing undergraduate schools. In fact, Berkeley has many highly-regarded graduate programs, including the journalism school; and I don’t know that the statistics for the journalism programs would bear out the assertion that one is more or less selective than the other. My choice–and here I am fortunate–was between two very good graduate schools. But throughout the process, the implication present in many of my discussions was that success at Columbia was more likely than at Berkeley. I often reminded myself that I could do as well for myself by choosing Berkeley than Columbia.

There are no guarantees, certainly. In fact, “no guarantees” is an appropriate motto for much of my life experience. When choosing, I considered that what happens in my life–my professional life, at least–is not determined solely by my school, but mostly by me. And that helped.

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2 thoughts on “Getting In

  1. christian says:

    What I take away from the article is the issue of competitiveness and ambition, rather than any sense of social engineering or “eliteness.” (There is, though, a tinge of hypocrisy throughout it all…I’m as guilty as anyone else.)

    My Catholic high school in NYC gave me an excellent education, and I was very grade-motivated and goal-oriented (goal =’d good college). It’s supposedly the only entirely tuition-free academic high school in the country. It accepts around 15% of applicants. It flatly discriminates against all who are 1) not male, and 2) not Catholic. And yet I’m strongly supportive of and committed to the school and believe that there’s a place for it, at least for 4 important years in the lives of its students.

    NYC is full of competitiveness–it’s a neverending turf battle; immigrant parents need it to survive and succeed. I was imbued with it from both. I’m not sure how much of it is left in me. California seems to dull it. Or maybe I just don’t get the same sense of competitiveness here at Berkeley.

    I chose Dartmouth over other Ivy league schools because it seemed the most “blue-collar” or normal of these schools that supposedly guaranteed one’s future success. But it’s still obviously very much a country club–self-reinforcing, exclusionary, proud, selective, etc. When I worked in the admissions office, I got no sense of the existence of any cabal of social engineers. Maybe it’s all behind closed doors, or maybe it’s the socially conscious and PC attitude of the last 20 years that gives the appearance of dedication to recruitment of a diverse student body. The students at Dartmouth were all very intelligent and capable, and motivated. I was impressed by the number of people who were motivated and ambitious in a non-self-interested way; it seemed like many people would go on to try to improve the world, rather than just get more and better. Will that idealism has wear out?

    Like you, Tim, for a while I said “some school in New Hampshire” when people asked. Like you, I started to feel funny about it, because of the conscious coyness. We’d never write “some school in NH” on a resume. It’s something we use when we need to, I guess.

    The Ivies excluded me in the competition for graduate school. Did I feel slighted? Yes. I felt for a while like I had gotten kicked out of the club. But it was a good thing for me. I can get too easily caught up with the sense of eliteness that comes with the –dare I say– privilege of attending (and paying for) an elite institution. Like I said, I’m guilty of hypocrisy.

    It’s more about ambition and inclusion (or exclusion). The people I know here are committed to some things, but not success and power and control in the way that the business- and med- and law-school bound students of the Ivy-league (read Dartmouth) were, and yet Berkeley is supposedly the “best” university in the country (http://www.berkeley.edu/about/honors/). Maybe I’m exposed to an atypical crowd. People here seem to be very proud of Berkeley…there’s as much gold-and-blue here as there was green at Dartmouth. I guess I’m a part of two groups now. Can/should I wave two flags? Or ignore it? “Suck Fanford” instead of “Bulldogs suck”? Maybe that’s more about pride than competitiveness.

    Anyway, if it’s not simply a desire to be part of something or to be defined by your experience and context…..then motivation and ambition…isn’t that what this is all about? And yet I don’t think I know what motivates people or why they might be ambitious, or why or how such characteristics would change.

    wondering in Berkeley,

    Christian

  2. will says:

    I guess no one knows what motivates people or why they might be ambitious, and it’s that elusive x-factor on which Tim seems to have chosen to stake his future, rather than affiliation with a prestigious academic brand. It’s also why the student-athletes of whom Gladwell takes special notice are unusually successful as a group. My own encounters with the Ivy-educated (which I am not) bear out Christian’s experiences: motivated, bright, hyper-capable people, though since I was meeting them in post-graduate settings I was never likely to encounter any of the “sports” who apparently populate this elite world I know nothing about, save anecdotally. I share Gladwell’s outsider’s perspective on this whole process, having gone to college through precisely the same quaintly lax administrative channels in Alberta. I’m not even a high-school graduate — how that must sound to those whose parents shelled out thousands to Kaplan, and themselves spent hundreds of hours prepping for SATs, I can only imagine — but that’s beside the point. Canada is a big country, and, as such, presents many ports of embarkation.

    The point is, Canadians view competition, academic and otherwise, very differently from Americans. Another Canadian expatriate, Conrad Black, talks about Canadians having “Tall Poppy Syndrome”, in that they take delight in cutting down to size those of their countrymen who aspire to or attain a stature above the modest mean. Trudeau wrote about the same thing; Gladwell likely knows about it all too well. While no tall poppy, I can attest to that mentality existing at home, and have always marvelled at this point of difference between Canada and the U.S., where the tall poppy is venerated and lovingly nurtured. But enough about Canada. The discomfort both Chris and Tim feel or have felt about being from “some school in New Hampshire” interests me, particularly Tim’s comment that many people don’t know where Dartmouth is or have never heard of it. Don’t you take a certain satisfaction in that? Almost no one at large has ever heard of my terminal school, and that’s just the way I like it. It’s the reverse of American academic brand recognition/cultivation, and is, perhaps, the elitism, however perversely conceived, of which I’m guilty. By the way, Tim, when I first met you and you mentioned you’d gone to college “in New Hampshire”, I simply assumed, from the way you spoke and comported yourself, that you were referring to Dartmouth. This recalls old ideas about language and recognition that I won’t go into here, having already gone on too long.

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