I’m not as big of a prestige whore as some people I know, but since everything I’ve ever been paid to do as an adult probably at least indirectly has something to with my two Harvard degrees, I suppose I can at least mount a small defense of my prestige being worth more than the skill of the unwashed masses.
My argument proceeds from this premise: really capable people rise to the top, true morons sink to the bottom, and most of us are in a large swath of mediocre people in the middle. Despite the fact that your mother told you how special and unique you were, most people are in fact interchangeable, and even highly skilled people are rendered no better than average when it comes to tasks outside of a narrow specialty. To put that more pithily: everybody is great at something but nobody is good at everything.
Prestige, therefore, becomes a thing that helps us separate unremarkable mediocre person A from unremarkable mediocre person B. It’s not a perfect filter. But it’s one that everyone is used to.
And we need a filter. Nobody has time to get to know why Jane is a special person on the inside. It’s a lot easier to say that Jane went to a really good school so, in addition to her stated qualifications, she’s probably educable. The thing about prestigious institutions is that one assumes people had to do something right to become associated with them in the first place.
The problem with institutions lacking in prestige is, obviously, the feeling that just anybody can get in. What’s funny is that successful people from institutions lacking in prestige are quick to support the notion that some people from their institution are total idiots, even while arguing that people shouldn’t be elitist. Raise your hand if you’ve heard (or said) “Sure, some people from [my school] are freaking dumbasses… but not everybody!” That just confirms the suspicion that some places have low standards.
You don’t hear Harvard students saying, “The bottom half of the class here would drown in a rainstorm.” You don’t hear Cravath lawyers say, “Hiring one of our associates is a real crap shoot.” But people from so-called “TTTs” regularly admit that some of their colleagues are stupid.
And then they wonder why people discount achievements that could just involve running up the score against sub-par competition.
Talent is more important than prestige, but when a person’s talent level is fundamentally unknown or hard to gauge, prestige is a fine way to go.
The Pedigree Problem: Are Law School Ties Choking the Profession? [ABA Journal]
How to Do What You Love [Paul Graham]