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Halo of Prestige

Halo of Prestige
Published on Apr 27, 2023.

In my entire school career, there was no recognition, no prize as big, no prestige as valuable, as the college you got into. That’s what all this was for, all the hard studying and the extracurriculars, so that you could get into the best college possible.

But I wondered for a long time, what exactly is prestige? Is it a measure of something real and tangible? Or is it something else?

This is an important question. It’d be one thing if this prestige thing didn’t matter. But it’s one of the main ways we divide people up. All because of an idea we have in our head. But what the hell is it?

Well, we can’t really say prestige is a scientific measurement of anything, because it’s not purely objective. The exact prestige of a college depends on who you ask. For some, the best college in the world is Oxford. For others, it’s Harvard. And for still others, it’s Princeton or Yale or Stanford or MIT.

But while it’s clear that different people bring their own subjectivity to prestige, it’s also not purely subjective. We all have our own ideas of prestige, but somehow we all end up in the same ballpark. There isn’t anyone saying “Purdue is the most prestigious” (sorry, Boilermakers), nor anyone asking “Harvard? Isn’t that like a 2nd-tier school?”

So at a minimum we can say that prestige is a non-scientific measure that we roughly align on because of social coordination in some way. We can’t agree on the best of much else – the best actor, the best sports team, the best President – but for some reason, when it comes to college and prestige, we more or less agree on the tiers, if not the exact ordering. But how does this social coordination work?

As a first approximation, prestige might be how we measure proximity to money and power. When we try to figure out how prestigious a school is, we look at its graduates and their accomplishments. Many Presidents come from Harvard and Yale, so those school must be doing something right. Chicago puts out famous economists, Columbia has finance geeks, Stanford has computer whiz kids (Interestingly, Stanford was considered a regional school until the 1970s when Silicon Valley took off. Then the large number of startup billionaires from Stanford pushed it into the upper stratosphere of prestige.)

This idea of prestige as a “proximate measure” is useful – it explains why some people think Harvard is the best school and others think MIT, since people value different kinds of talent differently – but it still doesn’t feel enough. Prestige when it comes to colleges is not purely practical, like which brand makes the best outdoor grills. There is something deeper to the prestige of colleges. Something almost mythical or magical about it. Something that validates the people who go there as worthy, in an almost spiritual way.

When I was growing up, I used to get this feeling when I watched movies set at Ivy League schools. Two in particular – Good Will Hunting and A Beautiful Mind – gave me this sense of prestige as something very, very special. Here was where real intellectual thought happened! Here, amid the manicured lawns and old buildings and ancient traditions, were the highest, most valid parts of human civilization! Here was where I had to be.

When I think of those movies, or just imagine the colleges they were set in, there’s a certain flavor to the memory. Almost a halo around them. Like they’ve always existed this way and will always continue to exist.

In fact, that’s another clue – we think of prestige as a permanent quality. If you think of MIT as prestigious, you’re very unlikely to wake up in 10 years and say “Well, MIT was prestigious 10 years ago, but now it’s really a has-been.”

Where does all this leave us? What really is prestige?

Based on all this, here’s what we can say about it:

  1. Prestige is a subjective but socially coordinated measure of something
  2. That something is invisible and intangible but incredibly valuable. So valuable that young people dedicate entire years of their life towards it and we base our idea of someone’s worth on it
  3. That value has the halo of permanence around it

When I see these characteristics, I’m reminded of something else that has them too. In fact, it’s something that the sociologist Emile Durkheim found in the Australian bush wandering with tribes, trying to distill human religion to its most primitive roots. And where he got to is a realization that religion – this widespread phenomenon that appeared in some form, among all human societies, across all places and all time – is at its most fundamental level based on an idea of the sacred.

The sacred is subjective but socially coordinated (people in the same faith will have roughly the same idea of what is sacred, but they might still value different images or symbols as more or less sacred). It is invisible but incredibly valuable (people have dedicated their lives and died for it). And it has the halo of permanence (what is sacred is always sacred).

Like prestige, sacredness is an immaterial quality that we just accept about certain things in the world. Things that inspire awe and command respect. Things that make our eyes light up, and our souls grovel. Things that have such a strong psychological hold on our minds that they shape our lives.

Prestige is the modern-day version of sacred. A fundamental part of the modern, rational, industrial value system that we’ve developed in place of the ancient religions that we’ve left behind. And the sacredness of prestige doesn’t just stop at universities. It carries onto all sorts of things – companies where we want to get jobs, the successful people we look up to, the powerful media institutions where we get our information. All of these have the halo of prestige, a tinge of specialness, an almost other-worldliness to them, that we can’t quite fully explain in scientific, material terms.

I wanted nothing more than a little of this prestige for myself. I chased it – from the time I dreamt of the campuses that I saw in those movies, to the hours of research I did on Internet forums about how to get into my dream schools, to the nonchalance I projected to everyone else about my confidence that I would get in.

So I chased prestige – like so many of over-achieving kids – because it is the notion of sacred in our society. And like every human society that has ever existed, there is no recognition more valuable you can get than that of being more sacred, or closer to the sacred, than everybody else.