The Prestige Paradox

The prestige paradox works like this: An enterprising, promising high school senior manages to secure admission to Harvard. Soon, this lucky kid is greeted with admiration and awe by those who hear of this impressive honor. The glow continues to follow our golden child throughout her college life. Every time she meets someone on an airplane, runs into an old friend from high school or talks to Aunt Clara, she is reminded of her special distinction. She can’t help but begin to define herself by it.

Unfortunately, however, once inside the Yard, this identity is complicated by the hundreds of other golden children that surround her. She is then faced with a problem: the rest of the world defines her by this admittedly arbitrary and superficial standard of success. But once here, this distinction is no longer so distinctive. In the midst of this impressive bunch, she must figure out how to maintain this hollow distinction.

The only way to maintain this fragile, prestige-based self-image, then, is to acquire more prestige. Hence, the paradox: The constant hunger always leaves one, well, hungry.

— Rustin Silverstein in The Harvard Crimson, 1998

There’s always more prestige to be had. When you’re on the outside of what is more prestigious, you want to be on the inside of it. When you’re on the inside, you see through it, but cannot admit it; so you strive for what is yet more prestigious, thinking this time it’ll be it. Years could pass rather quickly like that.

Dubious Lessons of a Well-Intended Education: On Fakework

Let’s be honest: education teaches us some truly dubious life lessons.

A friend of mine recently took a class in which the sole assignment for the whole semester was a single 6,000 word research paper on a topic of one’s choice. Despite giving her professor assurances to the contrary, she began the assignment the night before it was due. She wrote the entire paper in one sitting, editing as she went, and submitted without proofreading.

She said she deserved a bad grade, and would’ve accepted one with resolve. She’d been unengaged by the class and was planning to declare it as a pass/fail. And yet—when she received the graded paper back a few weeks later, it had received an A, and her professor was effusive in his praise. He wrote to her in an email something along the lines of: this is one of the best undergraduate papers I’ve ever read, and I can tell how much effort you’ve put into this. Keep up the hard work, and may your successes continue.

The lesson my friend learned was one of smart work, as opposed to hard work. Pretend to work hard, put in the minimal amount of effort necessary, confuse with big words, elegant sentences and a complex thesis, and the rewards will follow. Success depends as much on impression as on reality—the impression of hard work, the impression of intelligence.

The kind of ‘smart work’ I’m talking about is more than the “hack” mentality put forward by blogs like Lifehacker, and more than the productivity mantra of Silicon Valley. Where those look to help reduce the time it takes to carry out a given task (and that is, after all, the idea of technological progress), the smart work taught by our schools and universities changes what it means to complete a task. A task is complete so long as it gives the impression of it, no matter the thought, detail, care, conscience or morality behind it. Perhaps a better term is fakework.

“Yes, and?”, some will ask. “The activity is still complete. What’s it to others how it was completed? And besides, they’ll never know.”

Modern culture itself seems built on a similar kind of impressionism. It is probably a result of modern advertising, the ever-increasing fight by companies for our attention, the ever-decreasing time we feel we have. Politics is now the competition of the sound-bite. Advertising gives the impression of life transformation through the purchase of a product, when of course the underlying product can never live up to the impression that was sold.

We are taught the lesson in our schools and universities, because everyone—teachers and professors included—are subject to the same laws of impressionism. Teachers have similar constraints on their time as students, if not more, and it seems the trick, for many (though by no means all!), is to give the impression of having thoughtfully read and graded a paper without having truly done so. Because both students and teachers engage with it, it becomes one of the unspoken myths of one’s education. So long as you give the impression of hard work—and don’t call others out on theirs—all will be fine.

We take the lesson with us to the workplace, and it moves us onwards, forwards, upwards.

The problem is, we come to believe it. Fakework becomes not just an unspoken reality of our education systems, but a rule of modern life. If we could once switch fakework on and off depending on the activity, soon we forget it underlies our actions. And for some things in life, hard work is the only solution. It’s those times when the mere impression of it counts for absolutely nothing.

Like when your doctor tells you you’re at risk of a heart attack, and that you urgently need to get fit to improve your heart.

Like when you’re about to become a mother or a father and have just a few months to learn everything you need to know to keep your child safe and healthy and to give them the right start in life.

Like when you’re laid off at 55 and decide to write the novel you always wanted to write.

Like when your father has a stroke and you’re his sole care giver.

In these situations, and so many more where the only one watching is our own conscience and the only people affected are the ones we care most about, hard work is all there is.

Education is so all-encompassing, all-consuming, that we fail to see how the lessons we learn, no matter how broken were the incentives through which we learn them, are lessons we take with us through life. Our views, habits and approaches to life are formed when we aren’t watching; they’re formed when we’re looking the other way, trying to get an assignment done the night before it’s due. I suppose one should try always to keep a watchful eye turned in this direction, and to see every assignment and task as an opportunity to practice the habits and approaches we’ll need when life most tests us. We don’t want to be left floundering, wondering why fakework isn’t working exactly when we need it most.

More—and Better—Liberal Education

In 2015 Fareed Zakaria joined the crowd of those publishing polemics on liberal education. His was different to many of the others, however, in that it self-consciously wrote for an audience far wider than academic circles. Where others were written from an academic perspective, and largely for academics, Zakaria took his experience growing up in India and then choosing to study at Yale to explain in more universal terms the appeal of a liberal education.

In amongst a range of issues, Zakaria suggests that “The solution to the problems of a liberal education is more—and better—liberal education.”

That seems right to me, though why it does has taken some thought. The sentence even seemed vaguely circular, for to me liberal education’s problems are largely definitional: colleges provide the resources for a liberal education, but because students aren’t clear on what exactly that is supposed to mean, they don’t know how to best make use of them to gain a liberal education. Is a liberal education a faster way up a managerial career ladder? Or is it four years to transform your life, to discover how to build meaning into your days? Those two words can mean different things to different people, even in the same conversation, and solving liberal education’s “problems” has meant for me encouraging a coherent view about what value it can really bring to people’s lives.

And I found it hard to decipher which view of liberal education Zakaria subscribed to, since at various points he discusses both. The first part of the book focusses on the extrinsic reasons for a liberal education, repeating the often-cited data of how it encourages the skills that employers these days want most. And yet the latter part—and seemingly Zakaria’s conclusions—focus on a more intrinsic, meaning-focussed view of the liberal arts, where students learn to become good people.

I need to think more on whether the two views of the liberal arts are mutually exclusive, but for now I interpret Zakaria as intending a broad definition of the liberal arts. His view of the liberal arts is not so much what happens inside it—whether it is career-focussed or meaning-focussed—but rather that the liberal arts in general, as opposed to the education systems of the rest of the world, are a good thing and should be expanded. The “better” part of the sentence is what is particularly confusing, then, as that requires determining which parts of liberal education itself, and which interpretations of it, are worth pursuing and bettering. And ultimately, without at the same time bettering liberal education, I’m unsure if its mere expansion is enough to fix its problems.

Regardless, I’m merely questioning small parts of what overall I agree with. Zakaria’s is a straightforward and compelling exposition of liberal education and why it’s worth defending.

And in a separate discussion I’ll perhaps save for another day, it was interesting to read Zakaria’s strong case for Yale-NUS College, which he calls “the most interesting and ambitious effort to reform liberal education in the twenty-first century”. It is always fascinating to hear others speak of Yale-NUS in broad brushstrokes as an idea, a project, when I’ve lived it daily for three years.

What Is Our Time Here For? Redux

Note: This article was originally published in The Octant, the Yale-NUS College student newspaper.

As part of the Yale-NUS inaugural classes’ orientation week in June 2013 we sat through a lecture by Professor of Humanities (Literature in English) Rajeev Patke titled “The Liberal Arts: Making the Most of Your Yale-NUS College Education.” I don’t remember much from the lecture in what was a week far-too-filled with them. But what strikes me now, at the beginning of my final year at college, is how there was probably no more a prescient lecture that could have been delivered to an incoming class of students. Education isn’t something that merely happens to us; we must reach out and grab it. Guidance on how to do so is what I for one most needed at the start of my time here.

At that point I felt I had a good grasp on what the liberal arts were. They were one half of my decision to come to Yale-NUS, the other being its location in Singapore. My desire to study the liberal arts had arisen from feeling restricted when I looked at university study in New Zealand or elsewhere in Asia—I didn’t want to specialize yet. I didn’t want to spend my four years studying solely law or International Relations, and coming out with very little idea of anything besides. I still wanted to take more literature classes, some history, philosophy and economics, and, who knows, maybe even some cosmology.

What I also knew was that companies want graduates who have studied the liberal arts. The admissions office here at Yale-NUS, and every other small liberal arts college I looked at, stressed that the liberal arts would give me skills and knowledge that were in short supply. Liberal arts graduates were perfectly suited to be leaders, because they would have—and these are Yale-NUS’s words—“the appreciation and understanding of breadth and complexity of issues, capacity for critical thinking and problem solving, and effective communication and leadership skills.” Yale-NUS called those three components the “critical outcomes of a traditional liberal arts education.” Surprise! They are precisely the three things we’re told companies today need in their leaders. All this gave me a strong (if vague) sense that as a liberal arts graduate I’d leap ahead of all those who had done specialist degrees.

Yale-NUS made an effort to describe the other ways that a liberal arts education would benefit us, capturing this idea in the phrase “Four years to transform your life”. But after my first week at the College, I quickly began to forget about this amidst classes, extracurriculars, and the pressure from CIPE to start planning out my next summer. I wanted my life transformed, but it became difficult to transform anything apart from my next essay as life became a string of deadlines and events.

What also began to happen was that the pinnacle of each academic year became a prestigious internship or an exciting international “opportunity”. Dining hall conversation began to turn to this topic from the end of first semester, and reached fever-pitch a few weeks into second semester. CIPE’s events talked about the importance of internships in setting us up for careers. Thanks to the subtle pressures within each semester at Yale-NUS, I started to think that the purpose of my education was to fast-track my career. I began to confuse “transforming my life” with getting a prestigious job. The lines began to blur, and I found myself taking classes I didn’t particularly care for but which would look good on my resume; I found myself choosing a major based on what was most relevant to the job I expected to get after graduating.

I now find myself with one year left to “transform my life”. In my junior year I realized that it is for a very good reason that the liberal arts and residential colleges go together. A college is a microcosm of life, where you are exposed to people and to life, where everything and everyone is closer. The beauty of a liberal arts college is that you are given an environment in which to make sense of all those conversations, emotions, and relationships, where books shed light on your life in dining halls, suites, and behind closed doors.  At what other point in our lives will we have the space, the time and resources to figure out what we like and dislike, what we want and do not want?

As I wrote in an article last semester, “The liberal arts and sciences are not a unique selling point for a resume, or a euphemism for an elite college. They are about having freedom—four years of freedom—to learn about ourselves and our own minds so that we can approach everything else we do in life with solid foundations.” And the thing I’d repeat to myself, if I was to do-over my first two years at Yale-NUS, is that nothing is more important than building those foundations. A career can rest on them, but the foundations of who you are as a person cannot rest on a career.

The essays and assignments, events and pressures won’t disappear during these four years. But what can change is our understanding of what all this time is for, and how we choose to respond to unavoidable pressures. That is something we all can grasp, and is the starting point for taking control of the books we read, the conversations we have, the time we spend, and, most importantly, the ways we learn to live our lives.