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A not-so-secret history: prestige and elitism in academia

September 12 — an annual article is published by U.S. News & World Report: “Best National University Rankings.” There’s a buzz on Notre Dame’s campus.

“Can you believe it,” a student whispers to a friend, as they scroll on their phone down to the bottom of the T20. “Notre Dame is tied with Columbia.”

For the next couple of days, I would overhear conversations in the dining hall and classes, in which students discussed the scandal that surrounded Columbia University’s former misrepresentation of its statistics which were factored into its ranking decision. Columbia math professor Michael Thaddeus challenged the school’s data submission and claimed it was “dubious or highly misleading.” While Columbia was initially ranked No. 2 by U.S. News & World Report, it dropped to No. 18 after further investigation — landing a tie with the University of Notre Dame.

This isn’t the first time that inaccuracies in the ranking have occurred — both undiscovered and exposed inaccuracies. But given Columbia’s academic prestige among the Ivy League titans, as well as being on Notre Dame’s campus during this ranking publication, it seemed like this was a much larger deal than past whistleblowing and auditing of university reports.

I found myself disappointed by the general fervor of excitement that occurred after this incident. While not indicative of the entire Notre Dame campus, I did hear rhetoric that seemed to commend Notre Dame’s stature and declaration of equivalence to Columbia during the revision of the rankings this year.

We wear our tied ranking like a badge of honor, yet do we want to celebrate being considered the same caliber as an institute that got caught fudging the numbers? Columbia is not alone; it is just the canary in a coal mine; a buzz-worthy casualty that exposes the fault lines of higher education in the United States.

However, I would be lying if I completely denied that prestige and rankings were at least a part of my college decision process. They provided some tangible way for me to compare the offerings and opportunities at numerous different universities — many of which I did not get the chance to visit in person due to COVID-19.

As much as I want to cast aside these evaluations made by third parties and declare them to be a mere trifle, most candidates for admission at Notre Dame and other “top institutions” are often enticed to apply based on these very appraisals. The reality is many students rely on these ideals and reports — hoping that acceptance to an institution of high caliber will somehow reflect credibility and worthiness onto themselves.

Prestige and elitism within higher education are no strangers to the world of literature either. There’s an entire genre dedicated to this ever-increasing concept, mostly attributed to Donna Tartt’s novel “The Secret History.” Published in 1992, “The Secret History” follows an ensemble of college students at a renowned liberal arts college in New England whose intellectual pursuits get muddled with the hubris of adolescence and emulation of the classical world. This novel is claimed to beget the “dark academia” genre.

While dark academia is ill-defined, most describe the genre as novels that take place in private institutions and elite universities — many featuring liberal arts disciplines. In addition, there is usually a darker element at play, such as betrayal and even murder. The competitive strife that these characters experience, while exaggerated for dramatic effect, is still encouraged in the real world by the ranking and classification system of universities.

To suggest abolishing the ranking system is not my aim in identifying these issues or commenting on the way we perceive higher education. However, perhaps we should reframe our mindset to remind ourselves that the fickleness of such systems should reduce our reliance on them. Rankings are commonly used as a sounding board for our intrinsic principles and value. But when rankings can drastically change and are contingent upon the candor and validity of their unaudited reporters, why are we basing our sense of worth on these transient elements?

When I think of the allure of the dark academia genre, I think of the pull toward the aestheticism of higher education. Peacoats, spires and wire-rimmed glasses all make the cut for the visual imagery I conjure in this realm. However, to claim that aestheticism and the appeal of appearances don’t exist to the same degree in actuality is false. The rankings with which we concern ourselves, the crests we associate with certain elite institutions — these are all charms that divert our attention from the big picture.

What does it mean to think and to reason? How do the interpersonal connections and relationships we form in college influence the people we become? These are the things that can’t be addressed in a simple ranking or a statistical report.

Chapter One of “The Secret History” begins with Richard Papen’s retrospective reflection of his character’s downfall. It commences with the inquiry, “Does such a thing as “the fatal flaw,” that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature? I used to think it didn’t. Now I think it does. And I think mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.”

When I consider the Best National University Rankings, I think about the strive for the picturesque — an unrealistic ideal that we believe will transcend our current circumstances. But at what point does this become a “morbid longing?” At what cost will we listen to the rankings and prestige above our own necessities and judgments?

Elizabeth Prater is a Junior at Notre Dame double majoring in marketing and program of liberal studies (great books). She is interested in the cultural implications of analyzing classics & literature under a contemporary lens. When she isn’t writing, she loves playing the violin, hiking in the PNW, going to concerts with friends and offering unsolicited book recommendations. Elizabeth always appreciates hearing from readers, so feel free to reach out eprater@nd.edu or @elizabethlianap on Twitter