When my oldest daughter was four years old, I attended open houses for private elementary schools. I was curious to see what education options would be available for her.
I remember one of the parents in attendance asked the head of the school for the school’s track record in getting their students into Harvard.
I cringed at the words since the students being referred to entered the school at five years old and exited at ten years old. None of them had gotten into college because none were even in high school yet.
Many applicants to college engineer their class selections and extra-curricular activities to be more competitive. It’s a game.
Colleges, in turn, are evaluated by rankings. In the United States, the U.S. News Best Colleges report is eagerly awaited each year.
One of the major statistics used in the rankings is the acceptance rate. The acceptance rate = # applicants admitted / # applications.
The universities quickly figured out that if they encourage more people to apply, this makes the school much more selective… and thus boosts their rankings.
The universities play games too.
If a student gets into an Ivy League or equivalent-level school, the entire experience has an implicit message of elitism. You’re one of the elite 5% who got in. You’re special.
If you work in consulting, the elitism continues.
You know how Harvard accepts only 5% of applicants? Well at MBB, we accept only 5% of Harvard students… we’re the elite of the elite… just do the math.
If you get into Harvard Business School (HBS), you’re implicitly taught that you don’t really need to take the finance classes very seriously. The #1 thing you learn at HBS is to hire a really good CFO… from Wharton (the implication being Harvard produces CEOs, and Wharton produces CFOs… a.k.a. Harvard is more elite than Wharton).
The elitism machine repeats over and over again. The names of the institutions may change, but the mechanism at play doesn’t change.
It carries over from employers to country clubs to getting kids into elite prep schools. There’s always yet another more elite organization or level within an organization to work toward.
If you have a net worth of $100 million, you know that’s a lot less than $1 billion. If you have one IPO, that’s not as good as having two IPOs.
The structure of elitism can be never-ending.
Here’s the thing.
Elitism isn’t an inherent law of nature like the laws of gravity or thermodynamics. It’s an idea invented by people. A group of people get together and agree to adopt a shared value… and a culture ensues.
This could be a family culture, a regional culture (Wall Street, Silicon Valley), or an organizational culture (Yale, McKinsey).
If you see elitism in this way, it’s incredibly liberating.
You can visit a country and experience the culture without adopting the cultural values and customs as your own. It’s simply one way of doing things.
The same is true of elitism. It’s not a universal truth. Seeing the world through the lens of hierarchies of prestige is merely one way of seeing the world. But it is by no means the only way.
Just something to think about…
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