While writing the first draft of my article on The Social Network, I wound up going off on a long tangent about choosing a college that totally derailed the article. It had to go. But the tangent was so long that it stood on its own as an independent article, albeit one that overlapped with the Social Network writeup. So I decided that I might as well put it up as a sort of appendix to the main entry. Enjoy...

360 kilobytes can't be wrong

The first time I really thought about where I'd go to college was when I was thirteen, when for $10 I bought a DOS program called The Perfect College: enter your parameters, and it'd generate a list. It was ideal for anyone who had ever thought, "I want to go to a school charging $5000 to $10,000 annual tuition in a city of 25,000 to 50,000 people with a student/faculty ratio between 10:1 and 20:1 and a volleyball team." Being overly impressed by anything that appeared on a computer screen, I took its essentially random recommendations as gospel.

By the time I was fourteen I had begun to have doubts about whether Penn State and North Texas should be at the top of my list. Those in the class ahead of mine were now going through the admissions process, and I was appalled at the criteria many of them were using in making their selections. A bunch of them wound up going to UC San Diego because of the weather. The weather! Not me, pal. I had but one criterion: I was going to go where I would learn the most. That year U.S. News and World Report said Yale was #1, so I decided I'd go there. I even bought the sweatshirt.

Then I turned fifteen and it was time for me to start sending in my applications, so I figured I should do a bit more research. This was before the advent of the web, so I had access to less than 0.1% of the information available today, but the Canyon Hills Library did have a guidebook that ranked universities department by department. I had little idea what I wanted to major in, but I soon found that it didn't matter. It seemed that no matter which page I turned to — English, history, math, physics — the top spot was held by the University of California, Berkeley. Which would end up being the only place I applied.

The reason I chose Berkeley was not just its position at the top of those lists, however. I had become incrementally less autistic about the college search by this point and recognized the importance of making a good match. For instance, some guidebooks warned that while, yes, Berkeley did have the strongest faculty in the country, it was a huge state school and undergrads had little opportunity to interact with professors. Good, I thought. Who wants to sit in a class of twenty people? That's high school all over again! I wanted to go to college, and to me that meant sitting in packed lecture halls listening to brilliant scholars holding forth in spellbinding monologues. Then there were the factors that weren't strictly academic.

stanfordium's atomic number is 404

As we drove through the Rockies this summer, Lizzie and I listened to recordings of a psychology course that I'd downloaded from the Berkeley webcast site, and at one point the professor made a fleeting mention of the rivalry between Berkeley and Stanford. What is it with American universities and their rivalries?, Lizzie asked. There is no comparable phenomenon in Canada, she asserted. Going to the University of Victoria doesn't make you duty bound to boo and hiss the mention of the University of British Columbia. I replied that while often rivalries in American higher education were akin to squabbles between twins — Amherst vs. Williams, anyone? — sometimes they did reflect fundamental differences, and Berkeley vs. Stanford fell into this category.

Someone I knew in college once told me the following story of introducing a high school friend of his who'd gone to Stanford to one of his Berkeley friends:

Stanford: So you go to Cal, huh?
Berkeley: Uh-huh...
Stanford: We call you guys "weenies"! What do you call us?
Berkeley: ..."capitalist oppressors"...?

The key distinction between Berkeley and Stanford, I told Lizzie, was that Stanford is private and Berkeley is public. In the heyday of California's educational system, when it ranked first in the country in every age group and people moved out west in droves to put their kids into public schools that offered educations on par with those of expensive Eastern private academies, attending the University of California was free. Even as late as the early '90s, when I was a student at the flagship UC, there was no tuition, and the "registration fees" that Republican administrations had imposed were still quite low: something on the order of $900, as I recall. (I was on scholarship so I didn't even have to pay that.) Stanford, by contrast, charged the equivalent of a middle-class family's entire annual income in tuition alone. So there you have it. The mission of the University of California was to remedy the power imbalances between socioeconomic classes by taking tax money from the wealthy and using it to offer a world-class education to anyone who could achieve clearly defined academic benchmarks, regardless of their family's income. The mission of Stanford University, which catered to the already rich, was to reinforce those imbalances.

I use the past tense here because, just as the plutocrats have spent the last third of a century hacking away at every other institution that has tried to level the playing field a bit, so have they undermined public education in California. Their chief vehicle in doing so was 1978's Proposition 13, which slashed the property taxes that paid for California's acclaimed K-12 public schools; those schools plummeted from the best in the land to near the bottom of the national rankings. Meanwhile, Prop 13's provision that a one-third minority in either house of the legislature can block a tax increase has starved the state of revenue, a shortfall that has been made up in great part on the backs of university students. A Berkeley education nowadays costs over $7000 per year, and that's not counting living expenses. Still only a small fraction of what Stanford charges, but equally out of reach for a family that doesn't have thousands upon thousands to spend on college. On the flip side, access to Stanford and similarly expensive institutions has been expanded by the same extension of credit that, until recently, disguised the fact that income growth since 1980 has gone overwhelmingly to the top 1%. So you can take your chances and hope that attending such a school will secure you enough extra income to pay off your colossal student loans.

Of course, all of this talk of education's effect on income reinforces the notion of universities as giant vocational schools whose purpose is not to foster an educated populace, not to improve people's lives by making the insides of their heads a richer place to spend time, but to help them secure better employment. The issue of how they might do this is where Harvard comes in. [Originally this is where I made the transition to the notions that what you know isn't as important as who you know and that Harvard has a reputation as a place to make contacts. But then I decided to delay that a bit and add another couple of sections...]

yes, it's this paragraph again

The psychology class that Lizzie and I listened to on our road trip was Dacher Keltner's course on human emotion. The dominant theme of the class was that emotions are key to how humans fold into groups, which in turn is crucial to human survival. No matter how much the right may cherish the myth of the rugged individual, a lone human in a state of nature is unlikely to last long, certainly not with any kind of quality of life. We have to work together in groups if we don't want to end up huddling in a cave and occasionally running out to gather berries. Nowadays we depend on vast networks encompassing millions of people we never see, but for 99% of our species's time on Earth we have lived in bands of around 30 to 50 people with whom we felt a direct bond. Much of our cerebral apparatus reflects this legacy.

Now, there are bonds that you're stuck with — you don't get to pick the family you're born into — and bonds that you choose. Until very recently, your "tribe" fell into the former category, and to a great extent, it still is. In various articles I have muttered disapprovingly about the way the world is divided up: we've got around 200 nations, most of them founded on ethnicity, and our few developed multiethnic states with relatively open immigration policies tend to be politically quite similar. Better if there were around a thousand countries with distinct political outlooks and open immigration policies, so you could choose the societal model you thought best. True, there are some paradoxes built into this idea. Undoubtedly many such countries would establish as a cornerstone of their political philosophy that they don't accept immigrants, or only accept immigrants of a certain ethnicity. And while it would be nice to be able to make your home in a society you like rather than in the society you were born into, the society you were born into tends to determine or at least shape what you like. Nevertheless, I contend that it's not a completely preposterous idea, if only because choosing a college works in much this way.

I went to Berkeley because of its top-ranked academic programs, and because I believe in public education, but also because I thought I might find a group to fold into there. I'd chosen a school before, sort of — my parents had been pushing me to consider switching districts in order to enter the computer science magnet program that was starting up at a high school a few towns over — and after some bad days at my current school I agreed. But it wasn't long after I arrived at my new school that it became apparent that the program was full of cretins, fratboys-in-training who idolized Wally George and spent their leisure time pioneering the practice of cyber-bullying on the local BBSes. This would not be my clique. And in fact I never really found one; my Facebook list doesn't include "the old high school gang" because I wound up floating around the periphery of other people's high school gangs, e.g., eavesdropping on the ironic banter of the proto-hipsters who worked with me at the school newspaper where I penned left-wing screeds for the opinion page every three weeks. But everything I'd learned about Berkeley suggested that things would be different there. I'd be surrounded by serious intellectuals who split their time between synthesizing new chemical elements and organizing free speech protests! My kind of people!

Or maybe not so much. I had made three main errors in my thinking on this point. One was in convincing myself that, despite published statistics, I would be entering what Mark Zuckerberg describes in The Social Network as "a population of people who all got 1600 on their SATs." I did meet some very smart people, to be sure, but for each of them there were two others who would have floundered in my high school AP classes. Another error was in imagining that Berkeley would still be in the throes of the Free Speech Movement over a quarter century later. To the extent that there was any activism happening, it was over stupid identity politics in which I had no interest. Mario Savio passionately railing against the corporatization of the university had given way to Hoyt Sze whining about Asian-American women dating white guys and Annalee Newitz fighting to reclaim the word "trannychaser" for trannychasers. My third and most egregious error was in my woeful lack of self-knowledge. I'm not an activist! I'm not the sort of person who goes marching in political protests! For one thing, that would require leaving the house. *

The upshot of all this is that my Facebook list doesn't include "the old college gang" either, because I also didn't have one of those. I did have a couple of reasonably close friendships, I suppose, but they went dormant pretty much immediately upon graduation. Does that mean I chose wrong? I dunno. I don't regret having gone to Berkeley; having attended two other universities for grad school and having spent a fair amount of time at a bunch of others over the course of my teaching career, I can say with some authority that things could have been a lot worse. After leaving Berkeley I spent the next ten years living in half a dozen different places, and when I finally had a chance to relocate based on no other criteria than where I most liked living, I came right back. It's pretty much the platonic ideal of a pleasant, progressive college town. (Whereas Palo Alto, where I've also spent a lot of time, is basically just Orange County all over again.) But I do sometimes wonder whether there might have been another school where I'd have had a better chance of meeting people more on my wavelength.

sometimes they had bowls of customized M&Ms

My first job after graduating was as an SAT tutor, and while at the time it was just a stopgap before grad school, teaching test prep became my primary source of income in most of the years that followed. In the '90s, most of my favorite students — the ones who were really sharp and interesting and with whom I got along really well — wound up going to Berkeley. In the '00s, almost none did. Part of the reason for that was that I spent half the '00s in the northeast, and it's pretty unusual to apply to a public school in a state where you don't live. It's also pretty unusual to apply to a public school when you already attend a private one, and most of my students went to Deerfield Academy. And I have to say, much as I believe in public education... Deerfield was my kind of place. I remember that once I was waiting for a student — Deerfield had a waiting area where you could relax by the fireplace with a cup of complimentary hot chocolate and a copy of The Economist, so I usually didn't mind if they were a bit late — when these two 14-year-old girls wandered in and plunked themselves down on the couch. They then proceeded to chat, not about the latest installment of American Idol, or about how dude they got so wasted last night, but about whether the rightward tilt of the media was imposed by the heads of media conglomerates or arose organically out of the quest for profits. And I pretty much never talk to strangers but I had to interrupt to tell them to please take over the world. Of course, the very fact that they attended Deerfield strongly suggested that they were already part of the top 1% and therefore would be taking over the world in due time. The top 1% isn't monolithic, after all; it includes the much-reviled "liberal elite." But even the most liberal of the liberal elite tend not to go to Berkeley.

After I returned to California, I found that the students I had a good rapport with tended to end up at (sigh) Stanford — as I lamented to the tutoring directors at the office, for a while there I was making a career out of routing kids to my alma mater's archrival. But not all of them. A select few — including the majority of my very favorite students — went to Harvard. If you want to meet some extremely awesome people, it does seem like that's the place to be. [And here I was planning to muse for a bit about whether I should have gone to Harvard — it would have made my mother happier, that's for sure — and then beginning my second attempt to make the transition to talking about Harvard as America's top university for social networking. Instead, I guess I need a conclusion. Here, how about this:]

the tacked-on conclusion

If I could go back in time I don't know what advice I'd give my younger self about college applications. One thing that occurs to me is that it might not have been the worst idea to find something else to do for a couple of years so that I could start up at eighteen instead of sixteen — gone to Simon's Rock or something like that. And even though it was the '80s and information was much harder to come by, I still could have done a lot more to learn about my options. I could have flown out for some college visits, gotten a sense of whether this place or that felt like a good fit. Maybe my life would have turned out very differently. Or maybe it would have been pretty much the same. After all, Berkeley had a lot to recommend it. It was free. It had the best academics in the land. And the weather was good.

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