Owing to some recent publicity involving Texas Senator Ted Cruz, right-wing pin-up boy and (apparently) weird Ivy League Über-snob, I’ve been reflecting on how prestige anxiety affects academics in general—both the people and the general enterprise. How It Works is a familiar pattern: you seek to get a First Job (convincing those who hire you that that you’re interested in the long term), then you find a way to Do Better, in terms of money, location, and not coincidentally, prestige. Because to be at a prestigious institution…oy-yoy-yoy! But still, if only they would realize at a better Ivy that you’re what they need. Of course, you can’t consider going without tenure, so if they don’t offer that up front you’ll sulk, and you have to develop a variety of different affects for the way you discuss your current institution with junior colleagues, or with applicants, or with your advisors and more exalted places, or with the faculty that the place where you came in second, or with the Sages at the Heavenly Academy…
Mir kennen brekhn. You could just throw up.
A friend recently posted eloquently on Facebook, testifying to his deep and lifelong professional satisfaction and gratitude, and to his admiration for the many hardworking students (a sizeable percentage of them being first-generation higher-ed enrolees) that he has taught, over the decades, at his non-Ivy institution. I empathize entirely with that; my institution is seriously non-Ivy, and the pay…well, I’ll leave that sad tale to the AAUP annual report on faculty salaries. Years ago I was asked, “Jon, if you had the opportunity to go to a Real Place, you would, right?” The person was an old, old friend, and (frankly) an angel. But still, let’s think a minute. A “real place?” Meaning if I had the opportunity to climb the prestige ladder, whether attaining the Empyrean of an Ivy or falling short of that exalted plane but still apparently improving my humble lot, I would?
A couple of points here. I’m in no way against improving one’s professional lot, if opportunity allows: broadening one’s opportunities and achieving an improved financial circumstance is both commonsensical and laudable. Fact is, though, the deeper into the Ivy we go, the whiter and more moneyed the student body, right? There’s a kind of interesting irony, there; academics—particularly those in the humanities—tend to be among the most reflexive and vocal supporters of the Poor, Oppressed, and Othered (and don’t bother denying that positioning yourself in one of those categories, one way or another, can be a high-stakes game), and the most energetic of finger-pointers at administrators or society or whoever when we feel that such people aren’t getting proper opportunities. When we get a chance to scramble further up the beanstalk toward the class of Martha’s Vineyard and Kennebunkport, though, we jump like dogs straining after bacon strips. Who will serve that underserved student population? Sorry, what was that again? Oh, right, them. Well, maybe I could suggest some names…really, I wish them nothing but the best, and have had a great time here…of course, I have some relatives that live right near the Jedi Academy, so it’s just going home for me, really…
I am not suggesting that a 5+5 load at a failing urban college with corrupt leadership should be good enough regardless—the “Goddammit, who do you think you are—too big for your britches?” argument is nothing more or less than the howling of the plantation captain. Fulfillment, though, comes in a variety of flavors, and the one everyone is supposed to strive after may not be for you after all (this is often discovered when it’s too late—as Joseph Campbell framed it, reaching the top of the ladder only to discover it was leaning against the wrong building). Setting the steps-to-Parnassus model of achieving senior status at an Ivy—what is inculcated in all of us in graduate programs, explicitly or implicitly—aside:
Consider the situation where one is providing something that’s really needed by a particular populace, if one is also given the opportunity to pursue one’s own work, and one has some stability. This, brethren and sistren, is an awfully good way to live. There’s no need to strut or compete or jockey because you’re there already; no competitors picking at you, seeking to out-maneuver you, beginning conversations just out of earshot with, “Listen, I love her to death, really, you know that; all I’m saying about her work is that I sometimes find it to be…” Like everywhere, there is always way too much to do, but a lot of gratitude for what you offer.
There are other variables that cannot be overestimated: in our case, a school that’s happy to have his’n’hers tenured senior slots in the Music History and Literature Department (a real rarity, as all of those striving to solve the Two-Body Problem will attest), a favorable place to live, a good situation for the family, including (especially) the school situation. Wait, move now? Yeah, the prestige and all, but…she’s just starting high school…
Full disclosure: many of my colleagues teach at more prestigious institutions than mine, and some of them at Ivies, even. Great! Sometimes they can even do me favors with the holdings in their great libraries and so forth, and sometimes I can reciprocate in this way or that. Wonderful for them, wonderful for me. And I even find myself at such places occasionally. All good!
The point here is that prestige itself is leaden, joyless idea. Striving after it as some kind of Holy Grail, or stewing in bilious rage because others have all the prestige and you don’t get any and it’s unfair and you were locked out…both sides of this are soul-sapping blind alleys. Prestige, like any other fool’s gold, cannot make the insecure striver happy; nor can it fill your belly or keep you warm at night. (Like power, admittedly, it can be an aphrodisiac…for a very limited time. So I’ve heard…) Above all, though, look at the people most obsessed with it—the Ted Cruzs, the our-kinds-of-people types, those one suspects of having an ap that will quickly reckon their prestige vis-à-vis another on the basis of a statistical analysis of two dozen indicators including Apgar scores, height, hair color, GRE scores, and tennis ranking.
These are not happy people, not contributing people, not healthy people…bottom line? We’ll all die anyway. Deep breath: take joy in what you’re doing and for whom you do it. Bland as it sounds, don’t listen to the conventional wisdom (by definition always conventional but never wise) about prestige, even if it came with the mother’s milk of your dissertation advisor. At least consider the benefits of continuing to grow where you’ve been planted. And on the other side, when the temptation to suspect others, curse the unfairness of The System, whatever, consider the wider picture.