New York Times opens eyes and educates this morning:
Why does a diploma from Harvard cost $100,000 more than a similar piece of paper from City College? Why might a BMW cost $25,000 more than a Subaru WRX with equally fast acceleration? Why do “sophisticated” consumers demand 16-gigabyte iPhones and “fair trade” coffee from Starbucks?
Because then you are so much better than the others around you? Sort of.
Suppose, during a date, you casually say, “The sugar maples in Harvard Yard were so beautiful every fall term.” Here’s what you’re signaling, as translated by Dr. Miller:
“My S.A.T. scores were sufficiently high (roughly 720 out of 800) that I could get admitted, so my I.Q. is above 135, and I had sufficient conscientiousness, emotional stability and intellectual openness to pass my classes. Plus, I can recognize a tree.”
The grand edifice of brand-name consumerism rests on the narcissistic fantasy that everyone else cares about what we buy. (It’s no accident that narcissistic teenagers are the most brand-obsessed consumers.) But who else even notices? Can you remember what your partner or your best friend was wearing the day before yesterday? Or what kind of watch your boss has?
A Harvard diploma might help get you a date or a job interview, but what you say during the date or conversation will make the difference. An elegantly thin Skagen watch might send a signal to a stranger at a cocktail party or in an airport lounge, but even if it were noticed, anyone who talked to you for just a few minutes would get a much better gauge of your intelligence and personality.
In other words, jerks will be jerks. Does this scheme work for academia and its obsession with rankings and sizes of dicks resumes? A good publication record can get you a job, of course, but then does anyone really care about it once you open your mouth and people realize that you are dull and narrow-minded? Why does almost every graduate student I know want to be become the next Zizek? Why does almost every junior scholar who published her/his first book think that people will suddently care to read it and talk about it? Why does almost every senior scholar I know talk about her/his work with sentences that contain not arguments, but simple references to one’s work?
Now, of course, academia is and will be about status, but somehow we all think that it is a special kind of status game, a sophisticated and subtle status game, not like those homeless dudes fighting over a corner downtown. We are better people, because we have attented educational institutions for a decade or so, but does anyone really care?