A few days before Christmas, some poor Penn student in computer science professor Steve Zdancewic’s “Programming Languages and Techniques” class didn’t like the grade Zdancewic (or, probably, one of his 16 assistants) posted for him, and, yup, immediately dashed off a bothersome email to say so.
Less important than how or why The Daily Pennsylvanian posted this email—the student sent it to the listserv for a class of 200-odd students, duh—is the dark, hilarious content therein. Shall we?
“It’s possible I’ve made a calculation error . . . but I do not believe so.” Or, YOU ARE WRONG. The two subsequent emails are sort of tedious—Zdancewic tells him what’s what and that’s that, then the student basically calls him incompetent, and that he (the student) is “confused.” And so on. Still, it’s sort of amazing to see this example, in fine detail, of the Ivy League’s historic and rather total obsession with its own quantification. This is a habit seen in the daily newspapers’ endless admissions coverage—e.g., see here, and here, and here, and here, and here—plus, it goes without saying, the U.S. News & World Report rankings and its imitators, which are always world-stoppingly important and intrinsically meaningful.
But take anything the Ivy League likes. Harry Potter, let’s go with. (Bear with me.) The New York Times once published an 18-year-old’s complaint about how the Ivy League and its array of imitators constantly compare themselves to HP. Or an element thereof, like Hogwarts. (To which some bothered Penn students replied!) A very big deal, all of it. Anyway: HP is attractive, and immediately so, to an adolescent child for the same reason the Ivy League is attractive, immediately so, a few years down the road. Both are bound by seemingly but not actually meaningful numbers. Which is sort of exhausting to explain, but let’s try. There are . . . SEVEN books . . . THREE magical schools . . . in one of which are FOUR houses . . . SEVEN hor-whatevers . . . THREE death things; there are . . . EIGHT schools . . . TWELVE colleges at one of them . . . TWELVE houses (different!) at another . . . THREE real schools . . . that accept TWO PERCENT of applicants, etc., etc.
Or take the Eduardo Saverin character in The Facebook Movie, humblebragging: “I made the second cut.” Not “the cut” or “the next cut”; “the second cut.” Or take your excessively groomed college tour guide mentioning, to the shared awe of every baby boomer parent born west of Pittsburgh, how many millions of books the university library contains, as though a prospective student might make a decision based on that figure. Or “self-help bro” (and ’00 Princeton alum) Timothy Ferriss’s The 4-Hour Workweek, which kind of makes fun of itself. Or, back at the turn of the century, Dr. Pierce’s Five Foot Shelf, and Princeton’s greatest invention, the SAT.
Never numbers as in grades, though. That implies a concern for the quality of one’s work or an interest in the material. Which, well! If you read the student’s email, it sounds like he’s negotiating the price of a plane ticket, or checking his taxes with his obviously incompetent accountant. Or, for that matter—in some distant, horrible future—wrapping things up at 200 West Street before cabbing it to his extremely classy West Village 2BR.