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.