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It Doesn't Matter If Your Kid Doesn't Get Into Harvard

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Imagine that the social and cultural cachet of a school like Harvard vanished. Suddenly the school became perfectly anonymous. Crimson sweatshirts now failed to elicit admiring glances from strangers, but the institution retained all of its faculty and laboratories and academic opportunities. All that disappeared was the patina of prestige. How many students would still apply? How many parents would still feel an existential anxiety about the prospect of their child’s rejection?

It’s hard to imagine that such a scenario would not ease the current frenzy surrounding college applications. The people who want only to enjoy the intellectual opportunities of a famous institution are necessarily a subset of the people who seek the psychological or practical benefits of that fame. If someone who wanted to attend an anonymous but excellent institution was not accepted into its freshman class, the stakes would not be very high. They would simply search for a different institution that also promoted intellectual flourishing. Admissions would not be a larger referendum on the student’s worth, and not getting into one school would be roughly equivalent to not getting a table at a particular restaurant. Rather than a crushing blow, it would simply be a practical matter of finding a different venue to fill the same need.

Despite the medical metaphor in its subtitle, Frank Bruni’s Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania is not a bracing cure; it’s a soothing balm for upper-middle class parents whose children do not quite manage to scale the highest peaks of prestige. It’s a book that wants to dismiss the importance of status without questioning the validity of status-seeking motives. A true antidote to the college admissions mania would seek to persuade prestige-hungry readers that they want the wrong things from education, unless they would happily attend an excellent but anonymous institution.

Bruni offers something a little different; repeated reassurance that the Ivies are unimportant because there are still other ways to attain wealth and status in America. Many of the anecdotes summoned to support this argument share a gently contradictory structure: a high-school senior gets rejected from an elite institution, attends a less elite institution, and eventually “succeeds,” an activity that seems to involve attending professional school at an elite institution or earning a large salary at a prestigious job. It’s okay not to get into Harvard, he suggests, because you can either get in later or find a different way to do the same sorts of things as people who do get into Harvard.

Most people do not attend the Ivies or their ilk, so it’s unsurprising that many non-Ivy graduates are spectacularly successful by conventional standards. But this constitutes a source of endless wonder for Bruni, who devotes large sections of his book to exclaiming over the fact that numerous successful CEOs, famous politicians, MacArthur recipients, and prominent authors graduated from colleges that lack the hallowed glow of national prestige.

His fondness for such anecdotal evidence clashes awkwardly with statistical data he includes. He cites a study by the sociologist D. Michael Lindsay that found that nearly two-thirds of a set of 550 powerful Americans did not attend institutions considered elite. But reversing the framing would produce a very different conclusion: More than a third did attend an elite institution, a disproportionate percentage considering that highly selective schools represent only a tiny fraction of educational options in America. He further undermines his own case by noting that over 40 percent of the incoming class at Yale Law School in 2013 and 2014 came from one of the eight schools in the Ivy League, while less than 20 percent of the class had graduated from state schools. Emphasizing the stories of students from that 20 percent serves his agenda, but it doesn’t change the strength of the correlation. Anecdotes don’t refute trends.

In fact, Bruni’s breezy anecdotes tend to reinforce the very assumption they ostensibly question: that prestige, power, and wealth are the major goals of education. He’s not asking his readers to examine a cultural obsession with success, so much as assuring them that they can still impress others without attending highly selective undergraduate institutions. Just look at all the people who run huge companies or work at prestigious consulting or law firms, he says. Not all of them went to Ivy League schools! There are “myriad routes to a corner office,” as he puts it. He never seriously considers the possibility that college might shape students into adults who are not interested in a corner office.

Is influencing student motives beyond the mandate of education? The historian Jacques Barzun once described the business of education as merely “the liquidation of ignorance.” But an alternate tradition that runs from Aristotle to William Deresiewicz argues that it matters why students want to acquire knowledge in the first place. Using the mind as a means to acquire a corner office is very different from enjoying intellectual activity for its own sake. This is not a distinction irrelevant to the madness of college admissions. One girl described in Bruni’s book was so eager to assert a genuine love of the life of the mind that her college application essay depicted a time she urinated in her pants during a particularly interesting conversation with a teacher. Bruni is right to note the ridiculous desperation of the essay, but he fails to draw a deeper conclusion: that someone with a genuinely pure love of learning would probably not broadcast this love to colleges, and she would also not care about attending a prestigious school in the first place. For someone motivated by a love of learning, prestige is irrelevant at best and an annoying distraction at worst.

Most people think of education as a political issue, but it’s less common to hear talk of human flourishing or happiness as a pressing political concern. This Aristotelian perspective offers something far more valuable than Bruni’s self-serving reassurance that there are many routes to prestige and wealth—education as a vision of a kind of happiness that can be realized even in the absence of wealth and prestige. The only sort of rankings the college admissions process needs is one that recognizes a hierarchy of student motives, in which the love of learning for its own sake is supreme. For anyone with the right motives, the other rankings don’t matter.

If college brochures took their own rhetoric about falling in love with the life of the mind seriously, they would encourage students not to see their studies as purely instrumental. Career services programs love to boast that you can study German literature or philosophy and still get a job in consulting; but whether or not this is true misses the point. A school truly committed to the ideal of intellectual life would not treat philosophy as a means to higher LSAT scores. Students would learn to develop such a strong interest in a subject for its own sake that they no longer cared whether anyone else knew how much they loved the subject, at what institution they were studying it, or whether it would enhance their career prospects. The philosophy department’s slogan might be something like this: “Learn to become the kind of person who will never care about all the money you will not make by choosing this major.”