When reputation overstays his welcome (part 1)

In two different context recently I’ve been considering the concept of reputation and how reputation reflects the past but is slow to catch up tot the present. I’m sure that’s not groundbreaking but it’s just something that I’ve been mulling over recently.

The first context, that I’ll explore today, is that of universities. We can all name a university that has an amazing reputation but how well does that reputation reflect the quality of their most recent graduates?

I’ve dealt with enough ‘ivy leaguers’ to know that they really aren’t better educated than anyone else who’s put in time and honest effort at a post-secondary education. The main difference is that they graduate with an amazing network of contacts and from that, opportunities that others won’t even know exist.

I remember talking with a new coworker, a recent Harvard grad slumming it with the rest of us. She was distracted by her blackberry. It was a message from her friend. Her “ooh…” made me ask if everything was OK. Yes, she replied. Her friend was starting a new job, it was supposed to be in Washington, but it turned out she was en route to Beijing.

Now I was enough of a political wonk to know that Obama was en route to Beijing, so I asked, “Is your friend’s first day on the job on Air Force One?” The answer was an immediately defensive, “well, she is Joe Biden’s niece.” As if that obviously made it completely normal for a recent undergrad’s first day of work to be on Air Force One.

I met another Harvard alumnus, someone who was unemployed because she’d help cause the collapse of the world financial markets in 2008. She was adamant that she was qualified to have wielded that kind of power solely because she was a Harvard graduate. I asked her what she’d studied at Harvard. “Medieval Literature.” That teaches you how to manage the world’s economy? “I WENT TO HARVARD!” She shouted at me.

That in and of itself was justification enough for her to be given the reins of the world economy. How dare you question this. End of discussion.

I worked with a Stanford MBA who didn’t believe me that whales were mammals and not fish. When I asked him if seals were fish, or penguins or turtles, he got thoughtful. Came back later to admit he never knew that whales were mammals. But hey, he had an address book full of billionaires and politicos, so who cares if he doesn’t know anything about life on Earth?

Do I sound jealous? I’m not.

I have a great education from a mid-ranked Canadian university. It’s done me well. I may not know Barack Obama, but I know three people who have dined with him. And I have dined with a king. I know people who have spent time with Nelson Mandela. I’ve met Kofi Anon and leaders or former leaders of a number of nations. My students have stood on stage with Bono, been interviewed by Jon Stewart, and won major awards for economics and humanitarian work.

I’m not jealous. I’m angry at the arrogance, the misplaced self-confidence that comes from studying at a university with a reputation that masks the abilities and capabilities of its graduates. Some of the worst politicians in America today are graduates of these schools: Ted Cruz and Tom Cotton went to Harvard, Josh Hawley went to Yale. Trump went to Wharton.

When I was in uni, a long time ago, one of my political science profs (a cagey but-if-you-got-him-drunk-he’d-admit former spy) said that what’s taught in university tends to be about ten years ahead of what’s considered general knowledge. This was before the internet, so that time frame may have collapsed (or expanded, as conspiracy has now replaced fact in so many people’s lives).

I think a lot of universities have unfounded reputations, at least in these times, and we need to reconsider what exactly makes a university special or reputable.