I had a friend who had risen the ranks of a niche educational software company — from engineer to executive. She was comfortable, had all the power she wanted and needed, made excellent money. But the boom was happening around her and her friends were rising the ranks of the Googles and Genentechs. So she figured she should change jobs. After all, no one had heard of her little software company. She was tired of explaining what her company did to people. When asked what she did — that insidious American query — she wanted the answer to resound for the asker. She wanted prestige.
Now, I understand if she wanted a new challenge or new co-workers. But to change jobs to get recognition from….I don’t know who…well, I thought she was nuts. What matters, it seemed to me, was everyday life. Who cared whether her company bestowed prestige upon her?
And yet, when I considered my own experience, I realized that I believed that there were such things as good colleges. We all know their names. I went to one, I imagined. It wasn’t the best, I knew, because it was one of the so-called lesser Ivies. Still, it was Ivy League and that in and of itself was meaningful.
But what, exactly, makes a good school? I got my PhD at UC Berkeley, another so called good school. And while I had one or two great teachers, it seemed like a terrible place for undergraduates. Classes were enormous and students had close to no contact with the much touted esteemed faculty; students interacted with graduate student instructors like me. As for my own experience, all the so-called “big names” — the reason the school was called good — were unbearable, unapproachable human beings.
My advisor and mentor, no doubt one of the coolest, smartest people in the world, was never even tenured. No one has heard of him. And yet, over seven years, he dramatically changed my life by consistently expanding, inflecting, opening how I think. And my biggest influence at the University of Pennsylvania? A graduate student instructor.
I began to realize that there are smart, good teachers at every school and there are idiot douche bags at every school. And yet we are tethered to these notions of good — notions that are based in institutional aegis and the collective belief in this aegis. That is, we believe an institution is good because we are told so by institutions and so we all come to believe it. This collective belief propels the idea that this or that place is good and so, in turn, prestigious.
Harvard is a good school, we say. But based on what? Student test scores? So if you did well on your SATs you’re smart and so I want to go to school with you? That’s insane. Google is a cool place to work, we say. But why? Because lots of people know its name? Because some people at the company have good gigs where they get to come up with cool ideas? Does that mean you, as some lowly product manager, are cool, too?
Who the fuck cares where you went to school or where you work? The question is: Is everyday experience good, healthy, beautiful? Because I have to tell you, while it might be cool to work for a company like Google, Apple, or The New Yorker, if your job is stupid, stressful and your boss is an asshole, there is nothing good or prestigious about that. While it might seem right to go to a school like Berkeley, if classes are overcrowded and students are nervous, anxious, religious zealots from Orange County, are you sure you want to go there? What’s good about that?
Of course, we live in a culture that values prestige. In this essay, I dropped the name of two (quasi) prestigious institutions which I suppose I believe gives me some validity. Which is absurd. There are plenty of morons with PhDs from renowned universities (I may very well be one) just as there are plenty of geniuses who never went to any school or worked anywhere cool.
To believe in prestige is to privilege abstract, collective impression over palpable, daily experience. To which I say: fuck prestige. Do what serves your everyday vitality.