When the word came down that I was share my thoughts with you, gentle reader, about the role prestige played in my decision (shoot! 20 years ago!) to "go to Harvard," I have to confess to feeling a bit of resistance and ambivalence. First off, I technically went to Yale, not Harvard. (Yale and Harvard people are completely different animals, believe-you-me.) Second of all, ambivalence about where you went to school is a classic Ivy-League graduate, passive-aggressive power-move. I can recall many a time as a young (and not-so-young) man when my response to the fairly innocuous question of where I went to school produced a stutter, or a lack of eye-contact, or a claim that "Oh; I went to school in New Haven," Yale my own personal Bridge to Nowhere that I was technically for until I started downplaying it.
The backstory to that rather cliched bit of privileged obfuscation is pretty straightforward. My parents are immigrants from Haiti and neither finished college. I grew up on a block in South Queens, NYC where in a cohort of about 10 boys my age maybe three graduated from college, this because their parents sent them to public school while mine availed themselves of the structure and phonics available at the local Catholic school. (I don't know I this factoid is true, but to give you a sense of the Catholic schools in Queens at that time: graduates of my high are wont to claim that our school lost more people on 9-11 than an other, firefighters and policemen all.) I had my sights firmly set on attending NYU, but after I scored a 1540 on my PSAT's my guidance counselor burst into my homeroom clutching my results like an inveterate, hard-luck gambler who has just found a winning lottery ticket on the floor. Between the Ivy's commitment to diversity and my own showing it seemed the two of us were going places. I visited Princeton and didn't like the eating clubs, Columbia was too close to home, and an uncle had attended Harvard for a semester in 1950-something and has, in the intervening 58 years, not let a week pass where he doesn't recall talking long walks along a sun-dappled Charles River and discussing economics with the ghost of John Maynard Keynes. Yale it was.
But why Yale over NYU, you ask? Don't be dense, friend: The simple answer is that I got a better offer. Prestige is a measure of power - social, economic, political - so talking about prestige in my college decision making process is for all intents and purposes a conversation about class, about race, about affirmative action in college admissions. About a number of issues related to success and failure that are difficult to get a handle on—at least until Wall Street blows up and everyone notices that financial mismanagement earns some Americans a foreclosure, while other sinners earn multi-million dollar golden parachutes.
To me, prestige is just too vague a measure of too many things to sort out at once, especially as they pertained to the already-murky thinking of a 17-year-old. For example, when I was in college, predominantly African American New Haven, Connecticut was the country's 8th poorest city, and ranked second or third in infant mortality. Yale was a fortress of privilege dropped down in the middle of that blight, and there was bright line around the school beyond which few students ever ventured. I was one about 20 black male students in my class, and every few weeks I would take a long walk up the main drag into black New Haven — Dixwell Avenue, I think it was — to get my hair cut at the nearest barbershop. In the barbershop I was a kid from Yale, while back in my dorm room I was the black roommate who insisted on taking showy pilgrimages out to the so-called ghetto and hood. There were two distinct forms of prestige to had in each room, contradictory and complementary at the same time, with me zig-zagging in the middle looking for various forms of advantage and leverage.
We like to speak romantically of the abstract value of an education, but very often a good deal of life hinges on something as simple as what happens the moment you walk into a room, what advantages and disadvantages you tote in with your metaphorical baggage. If I had a child choosing between a Yale bag and and an NYU bag I would tell them to the take the blue one, absolutely. They'd be young, black and hopefully gifted, and, if that doesn't work, at least they'd be a legacy.