Today is April 4 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often do you remind yourself of the irony of prestige?” The etymology of the word prestige is important to understand for anyone interested in navigating the chaos and practicing the art of living well. The word prestige stems from mid-17th century (in the sense ‘illusion, conjuring trick’): from French, literally ‘illusion, glamor’, from late Latin praestigium ‘illusion’, from Latin praestigiae (plural) ‘conjuring tricks.’ In other words, prestige means an illusion of glamor; a far cry from its modern connotation referring to riches, elitism, and privilege. The 2019 college admissions scandal serves as a modern-day example of the irony of prestige.
In 2019, a scandal arose over a criminal conspiracy to influence undergraduate admissions decisions at several top American universities. The investigation into the conspiracy was code named Operation Varsity Blues. The investigation and related charges were made public on March 12, 2019, by United States federal prosecutors. At least 53 people have been charged as part of the conspiracy, several of whom pleaded guilty or agreed to plead guilty. Thirty-three parents of college applicants are accused of paying more than $25 million between 2011 and 2018 to William Rick Singer, organizer of the scheme, who used part of the money to fraudulently inflate entrance exam test scores and bribe college officials.
As one observer noted “There are many reasons for the current climate surrounding college admissions and its escalation since the dawn of the internet but a major culprit in the college admissions mania is the US News and World Report Rankings and their deeply flawed methodology. These rankings propagate the illusion of prestige. As we have seen with this admissions scandal, the allure of prestige and the false promises it makes is a golden calf that few can resist worshipping.” These rankings, and others that followed, created an aurora of prestige. Parents, high school administrators, and students started to become enamored by the aurora of prestige. But this mirage of prestige, was just that, an illusion. On this illusion, former Stanford Admissions Officer Jon Reider, said in the 2021 Netflix documentary Varsity Blues, “Prestige means deceit, that’s the original definition, that’s what prestige is in college, its imaginary, it’s an illusion, yet people believe in it.”
This belief in the illusion of the modern definition of prestige has created tremendous psychological stress on young adults. During the last decade, one report after another has provided evidence of the tremendous stress parents are placing on their high school child/ren to get into a prestigious college or university. For example, in 2018 the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine added youths in “high achieving schools” to their list of “at-risk” groups, along with kids living in poverty and foster care, recent immigrants, and those with incarcerated parents.
Additionally, in 2019 a report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation came to a similar conclusion when it named the top environmental conditions harming adolescent wellness — among them were poverty, trauma, discrimination and “excessive pressure to excel,” often, but not exclusively, occurring in affluent communities. Commenting on the stress, anxiety, and depression experienced by high school students to get into prestigious colleges and universities, independent education consultant Barbara Kalmus said in Varsity Blues “What are we doing to these kids pressuring them to get into a top tier college? Because ultimately where you do go to school has little or no effect on what will happen to you in the future.” Therein lies the critical element of getting accepted into college – where you go has little impact on your future. Sadly, too few people accept this reality and remain trapped in the illusion of prestige.
Russian-American author Ayn Rand discussed man’s relentless pursuit for prestige in her 1943 publication The Fountainhead, her first major literary success. Rand wrote: “Listen to what is being preached today. Look at everyone around us. You have wondered why they suffer, why they seek happiness and never find it. If any man stopped and asked himself whether he is ever held a truly personal desire, he would find the answer. He would see that all his wishes, his efforts, his dreams, his ambitions are motivated by other men. He is not really struggling even for material wealth, but for the second-hander's delusion - prestige. A stamp of approval, not his own. He can find no joy in the struggle and no joy when he has succeeded.”
How often do you remind yourself of the irony of prestige and accept the fact that the modern definition is far removed from its origin? Are you obsessed with the pursuit of prestige? If so, do you understand the irony here and the role deceit plays with such a pursuit? Are all your dreams motivated by others as Rand suggested? Those who navigate the chaos and practice the art of living well are aware of the irony of prestige and guard against the trappings of deceit. Sure, the wealthy parents caught up in the college admissions scandal were prestigious, but they missed the irony of prestige because they, like its original meaning, were deceitful. Practicing the art of living well involves avoiding prestige, and therefore, avoiding being deceitful.