Deborah Rhode says everything I’d want to say about academic life and “the pursuit of prestige”:
Status hierarchies carry special costs in university life. For most faculty, one of the main motivations for choosing an academic career, and one of its main satisfactions, is intellectual freedom. Professors value having control over their own time, agendas, and priorities. Yet that freedom is diminished when the pursuit of prestige becomes controlling. Moreover, because academic recognition is to some extent a relative good, a large percentage of the profession is bound to come up short. . . .It is of course easier to feel free to agree with Rhode if one has tenure.
The solutions are obvious in principle and elusive in practice. The fundamental challenge is for academics to stay focused on their own values, and to make the best use of their abilities in the service of goals that they find most meaningful. Rewards can come from many sources, and not all of them register prominently on the conventional pecking order. Harvard philosopher William James once claimed that “to give up pretensions is as blessed a relief as to get them gratified.” Whether or not the satisfactions are truly equivalent, letting go of certain status needs is often far preferable to the alternative.
In Pursuit of Knowledge: Scholars, Status, and Academic Culture (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006).
[I take pleasure in remembering that prestige has its origin in matters of conjuring and illusion.]