A Nation of Felicity Huffmans

Actress Felicity Huffman in Los Angeles, Calif., June 13, 2015 (Jonathan Alcorn/Reuters)
Diploma worship ought to be beneath us.

A  thing that occurs to you if you attend an elite college or university, as I did, is that most of the professors teaching you are more or less the same beleaguered time-servers who would be teaching you at any other school. I well remember the sad, unshaven schlump in corduroys who taught one of my introductory English courses: He was fine. He knew his stuff. But so did the people who taught me English at my public high school. Sure, at name-brand colleges you can attend huge lectures given by name-brand professors who appear on television and the op-ed pages and the bestseller lists — but they’re just lectures. These days anyone can listen to a lecture given by a world-class expert on virtually any subject by going on YouTube. The actual interactive teaching in these lectures is done by beleaguered grad students in rumpled clothing.

By the time I’d graduated from Yale College in 1989, I had concluded that the value in the experience came more or less entirely from my classmates, not my teachers: I met a lot of wonderful, brilliant, hilarious fellow students. But couldn’t graduates of just about any half-decent college say the same? For that matter, I’ve met a lot of wonderful, brilliant, hilarious people at the various jobs I’ve held over the years. There are a lot of wonderful, brilliant, hilarious people working at the New York Post, for instance. The Post paid me to be a part of their gang, whereas my family and I paid Yale.

The elite-college experience is plainly not worth the immense cost. There are studies on this. In most cases, if you are bright enough to get into Harvard, but don’t actually go to Harvard, your post-college income will closely resemble that of a Harvard graduate. As George Mason University economist Bryan Caplan cleverly puts it, if the point of going to college is to learn things (rather than to obtain a certificate of smartness that is in essence no different from the one the Scarecrow gets at the end of The Wizard of Oz), why do students invariably celebrate when they get to class and find a notice that it has been canceled?

There is a widely shared assumption in our culture that having a degree from a place like Yale will get you a good job, or at least help you get a good job. In my case this hasn’t been true at all. I entered my profession by taking a pass-fail aptitude test given by the Associated Press. I passed the test. The AP didn’t care which college I went to, although perhaps it mattered that I at least graduated from a college. Deeming me employable, the AP subsequently hired me as a news clerk at their New York City headquarters. Once I got in that door, everything that happened in my career depended not on the abstraction of where I had studied but on my ability to do my job. Accepting whatever assignments I could get while doing various clerical tasks at the AP (at the time it fell to the news clerks to print out copies of the wire service’s stories and file them in cubbyholes, each marked with a day of the month, so as to form an archive for the reporters to consult), I managed in nine months to assemble enough clips to impress upon the editors of the Post the notion that they should hire me. They didn’t particularly care where I had gone to college either. Some of my colleagues had fancy degrees, others had gone to no-name schools. It just didn’t matter. All that mattered was whether they had made the editors think they could produce. Some who couldn’t were shown the door. Others were promoted within the paper or poached by other media outlets.

The latest elite-college admissions scandal rests on a foundation of pure silliness; as Jim Geraghty writes, people with rich, famous, well-connected parents are the ones who least need the imprimatur of a famous college to speed them through life. Yet these same people are the ones with the means to indulge the status obsession that plagues most of us. Let’s not think of Felicity Huffman et al. as unusual: Everybody with the means to steer their kids into top-drawer colleges is thinking about how to game the system. This is because an elite-college degree isn’t an instrument or a tool; it doesn’t have to lead to anything. It’s a status symbol in itself. Yale is Louis Vuitton is Piaget is Mercedes.

Having a Yale diploma in the back of my closet hasn’t directly benefited me in any way, as far as I can tell. But. The mention of Yale, in certain quarters, generates a sharp intake of breath. Or an “Oooh” of sycophancy. Or a sullen grumble and icy stare from those recalling how their own bid to enter the portals of Yale was rebuked by the admissions committee. If your goal is to enhance your sense of superiority over your fellow man, a Yale education is an excellent way to do that. Unlike a Porsche or a Cartier, it is with you always. You can’t lose it and it can’t be stolen.

Students at elite universities quickly notice the effect a mention of the magic name can have on people and regret the general cloud of discomfort it causes. This is the real source of the now-notorious habit Harvard students and graduates have developed of replying to the question, “Where did you go to college?” with “I went to school in Boston.” Yale students sometimes do the equivalent — “I went to school in Connecticut.” Some observers consider this dissembling a form of passive-aggressive bragging, but that isn’t how it’s intended. It’s intended to spare you, their interlocutors, from an ugly reaction (whether it be fawning or bristling) and it’s intended to spare them, the elite students, from indulging the equally sordid instinct to lord it over their fellow man. Harvard and Yale students aren’t good enough actors to fake the unease they feel when the question comes up. They genuinely are pained.

Somehow those of us who don’t own an Audemars watch or a Birkin handbag manage to muck on without them, and we don’t fret about whether our children will someday own one. Few of us have a hole in our soul because we don’t own the fanciest car in town. Because we realize worship of material goods is beneath us. Diploma worship ought to be equally so.


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