The Social Logic of Ivy League Admissions

Malcolm Gladwell: “You can imagine my confusion, then, when I first met someone who had gone to Harvard... There was, first of all, that strange initial reluctance to talk about the matter of college at all—a glance downward, a shuffling of the feet, a mumbled mention of Cambridge. “Did you go to Harvard?” I would ask. I had just moved to the United States. I didn’t know the rules. An uncomfortable nod would follow. Don’t define me by my school, they seemed to be saying, which implied that their school actually could define them. And, of course, it did. Wherever there was one Harvard graduate, another lurked not far behind, ready to swap tales of late nights at the Hasty Pudding, or recount the intricacies of the college-application essay, or wonder out loud about the whereabouts of Prince So-and-So, who lived down the hall and whose family had a place in the South of France that you would not believe. In the novels they were writing, the precocious and sensitive protagonist always went to Harvard; if he was troubled, he dropped out of Harvard; in the end, he returned to Harvard to complete his senior thesis. Once, I attended a wedding of a Harvard alum in his fifties, at which the best man spoke of his college days with the groom as if neither could have accomplished anything of greater importance in the intervening thirty years. By the end, I half expected him to take off his shirt and proudly display the large crimson “H” tattooed on his chest. What is this “Harvard” of which you Americans speak so reverently?” (New Yorker)

I am amazed that, even at this point more than thirty years after I graduated, anyone would want to treat me like a Harvard alumnus (and I try to make that clear to the alumni fund solicitors!). Yes, I went there, and I do not hang my head in shame and mumble unintelligibly when anyone asks me where I went to school, although I am certainly familiar with that behavior from my own past. But I have not gone to a reunion of my class since the 10th and the tales I swap convivially are from times and places far from there. I no longer even know from what college most of those in my social circle graduated, and I keep up with those of my college-mates with whom I do not because of where they went to school but what sort of a life they have gotten for themselves since. And, it goes without saying, there are far worthier charities to which I target my charitable giving than the crucible of the ruling class.