College and Reputation

by Alan Reinstein, English teacher

The college applications are in for seniors, and the waiting period for acceptances won’t reach its zenith till March and April, so as Senior Slump begins, I’d like to take a moment to consider an important element of the choosing-a-college process: reputation. 

For many of us here at South — for faculty as well as students — an infatuation with the status or renown of a college or university can cloud the clearer thinking that should go into choosing a healthy place to study after high school. This infatuation, in my opinion, mistakes education for image, matter for manner, and misleads students to value themselves by where they study and not by what they do with what they study.  

Of course, there is a reason that prestigious schools are so reputable: exceptional thinkers and scholars both teach and study there, and professors and students alike till their institutions’ fertile soil to grow rich discussion and learning, which then catapults everyone involved towards discoveries and accomplishments that enrich us all. 

I get this, and if this — enlightened discussion, intellectual growth and breakthroughs that benefit the community — is the motivation for students applying to Ivy League colleges and their cohorts throughout the country, then these students and parents are choosing and thinking well. To seek intellectual growth to benefit either oneself or one’s community is an admirable and worthwhile pursuit. 

The pursuit of reputation, however, that yearning for the applause from others, as in the excitement of that college-acceptance announcement that will impress the neighbors, is a false promise and, although this comes from a hunger natural to many of us, an unhealthy ambition.

As a schoolteacher, my feelings are mixed: I should celebrate a tradition in our school that elevates both scholarship and the students who are ambitious to attend institutions that trade in this; yet, the distorting lens that focuses on the institution’s name and reputation for its symbolic value of personal worth is not only misguided by directing students away from the valuable path of intellectual growth, but also dangerous in that it promotes an elitism that restricts the very opening of the mind that higher academic learning is meant to foster.

In my case, my college acceptance to the University of Wisconsin in Madison — a school with its own good reputation, yes, but not quite Brown or Bowdoin — could mean that my complaints about a fixation over the prestige of a college admission might just be sour grapes — which may be true, I can’t say. 

But I can’t help thinking that applying to an illustrious college to satisfy an appetite for the respect and admiration of peers and outsiders, rather than to learn from specific educators who teach there or within a special course offered only there, will engender a misunderstanding of the larger value of being educated. Focusing on reputation over authentic learning steers both students (and their parents) away from the very serious lessons that their top school is poised to offer them.

It’s true that we are all susceptible to the pull of others’ respect and admiration for us; I understand this craving as well as or more than others. Many South students, vulnerable to seeing themselves foremost through the eyes of others than through their own, convince themselves that the name of the college they attend will carry attributes of intellectual strength that they can then attach to themselves: Duke, the thinking goes, sounds better to the world than Duquesne. And yet to be pulled toward this connection between personal identity and college acceptance is to be pulled away from judging oneself internally, from measuring oneself according to one’s own aspirations and not those of others. It’s a tricky business that — for me, at least, at fifty-eight — is still easier to write about than to master.