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Tom Rosshirt
Tom Rosshirt
27 Apr 2013
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The Prestige Trap

Comment

As an admissions interviewer at Harvard College, I faced a recurrent ethical dilemma: What do I tell weak candidates who ask, "What are my chances?" Dashing a student's long-standing dream can be cruel, but an even greater cruelty for me was the high personal and moral costs many students incurred in their pursuit of Harvard.

A disturbing number of applicants long to attend Harvard even if the university ill-suits their talents and interests. I remember interviewing one young woman who told me of her academic interests in health, exercise and nutrition. When I interrupted to ask why she wanted to pursue those interests at Harvard, she shrugged her shoulders and said, "Harvard's Harvard." I had to explain that Harvard, being Harvard, doesn't offer undergraduate programs in health, exercise or nutrition.

I've interviewed scores of applicants who decided at a young age they wanted to go to Harvard, took pains to go find out "what Harvard's looking for" and guided their activities with that in mind. By the time they reached me, they were heavy and dry, already worn-out by the burden of "achieving." Class treasurer, Key Club, swim team, violin lessons, debate captain — nothing was too tedious or taxing in the college admissions sweepstakes.

Parents aggravate the problem by expecting their investment in private schooling to pay off in high grades and academic honors leading to impressive college acceptances and prestigious careers. Students who don't meet this narrow notion of success suffer failure, and those who do meet it often torture themselves with pressure. When I was teaching in a Massachusetts boarding school, a favorite student of mine would often enter my apartment, collapse on a couch and start complaining. His subjects bored him, and his grades were dropping. And he was realizing he was never going to Harvard, Yale or Princeton. He was bright, passionate and insightful, but he regarded himself as a 15-year-old failure. Despite his unique talents, he couldn't shake the feelings of inferiority he had toward his less gifted but higher-achieving classmates, and thus he never held his own talents in the proper esteem or pursued them with his natural zeal.

Those closest to it know the costs of racing on this academic fast track.

Michael Forrestal, late president of the board of trustees of Phillips Exeter Academy, told an interviewer: "We've had suicides (at Exeter). The whole place had gotten too artificially competitive, too corporate. It's different than it was in my day. There is all this drive to succeed, and there is no real safety valve. Something must be done about that."

Ironically, Exeter can't "do something" without cutting out its own heart. Top private schools maintain their reputations by offering prestigious paths to the Ivies. To that end, many schools constantly remind students that they are not like others and that, consequently, more is expected of them. In doing so, the schools may foster academic achievement, but they also stifle creativity, promote snobbery and skew career choices.

There is a moral cost as well. "The career plans of our students — at Harvard and elsewhere — do not fit very closely with society's most pressing needs," then-Harvard President Derek Bok said in his 1988 commencement speech. Less than 4 percent of Harvard Law School graduates enter public interest, legal aid or government service; only 22 percent of Harvard Business School's Class of 1987 went into manufacturing (the rest battled one another for positions in investment banking and consulting), and less than a third of the Kennedy School of Government's Class of 1987 actually took positions in government.

As Bok reproachfully suggests, the nation's top graduates could do much to heal the widening rift between rich and poor. But when students are driven by the quest for prestige, they are more committed to widening that rift than they are to closing it. The same drive that led them to a "name" school impels them to seek a prestigious livelihood. It may not suit their talents and interests or square with their social conscience, but it does meet their prestige needs. The quest for prestige stymies individual fulfillment and aggravates society's deepening social divisions. Top schools may wring their hands over it, but the prestige quest is an ill they can't afford to cure. Instead, they attract it, feed on it, spawn it and spread it — leaving society to pay the cost.

To find out more about Tom Rosshirt and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

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