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18 June 2009 12:37 PM

Education

The East, The West, and The Ivy League

As a Californian who moved to the East Coast for graduate school, I've long thought that the Red/Blue lens so often used to look at the United States elides significant differences between folks referred to under the common banner of "coastal elites." There is an undeniable tendency among those from one coast to move to the other, rather than settling in the places disparagingly referred to as "flyover country."

Our experience is, nevertheless, one of moving between cultures. This is hardly a new insight--The Great Gatsby's narrator, Nick Caraway, mused on The East as an outsider, as did Joan Didion. She is particularly insightful here:

I am not sure that it is possible for anyone brought up in the East to appreciate entirely what New York, the idea of New York, means to those of us who came out of the West and the South. To an Eastern child, particularly a child who has always has an uncle on Wall Street and who has spent several hundred Saturdays first at F.A.O. Schwarz and being fitted for shoes at Best's and then waiting under the Biltmore clock and dancing to Lester Lanin, New York is just a city, albeit the city, a plausible place for people to live.

But to those of us who came from places where no one had heard of Lester Lanin and Grand Central Station was a Saturday radio program, where Wall Street and Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue were not places at all but abstractions ("Money," and "High Fashion," and "The Hucksters"), New York was no mere city. It was instead an infinitely romantic notion, the mysterious nexus of all love and money and power, the shining and perishable dream itself.
Prior to 2006, when I began graduate school at New York University, I though of Wall Street as an abstraction, "Fifth Avenue" as words that followed "Saks," and Madison Avenue--well, I can't say I ever thought of Madison Avenue. My own final abstraction was the Ivy League, a group of institutions I knew nothing about for most of my life save the fact that Harvard and Yale were among them. As late as age 26, when I began looking at Columbia University for graduate school, I never thought of it as being in the Ivy League, nor did I put Brown, Princeton or the University of Pennsylvania in those categories. I'd scarcely heard of Cornell or Dartmouth until I moved to the East Coast.

But I quickly found, hanging around with a close friend who attended the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, that to be a young, ambitious person growing up on the East Coast is to obsess about educational institutions in a way I never remembered growing up in California, although I took advanced placement classes at a competitive Orange County high school where classmates attended all manner of elite colleges. As seniors in high school, my sense is that although most of my classmates were probably aware of Harvard as the biggest name school in America, a peer admitted to Stanford University would've commanded congratulations as hearty. Asked to name the most prestigious school among UC Berkeley, Brown, Cornell and UPenn, Berkeley would've won the day, except that one never would've been asked to make that judgment, let alone to internalize it.

The difference in mindset seems to me best illustrated by an anecdote I'll never forget. It concerns a friend from California who earned his undergraduate degree at UC Berkeley, and enrolled for graduate school at Columbia University at the same time I did graduate school at NYU. He lived in grad student housing with a roommate who attended an Ivy League college (note to East Coast readers: it wasn't Harvard, Yale or Princeton).

The three of us were walking late at night on Amsterdam Avenue, after drinking two or three beers each at a pub. My friend Michael, whose name is actually something else, uttered some thoughtless remark that struck everyone as particularly stupid--the kind of comment you good-naturedly mock a friend for saying during a night of drinking. We did that for a while, and then his roommate Dave, whose name I've also changed, softened his tone.

"It's okay Mike," he said, "we know you just went to a state school."

The remark was spoken as a joke. But it struck Mike and I the moment we heard it - we made eye contact, both of us thinking, "Whoa, the East Coast is different--I don't know whether it's weirder that they have a disparaging category called 'state school' or that they're inclined to put Berkeley into it, but it never would have occurred to me that there could be a joke like that."

The moment passed, neither Mike nor I commenting aloud. Nor did I think of the conversation again until a week or two later, on another night when Mike, Dave and I were walking together. Once again, Mike said something that practically demanded mockery. Being his friends, we obliged.

At the perfect moment, I turned to him, softened my tone, and said, "It's okay Mike, we know you just went to a state school."

All three of us burst out laughing. And then Mike said, "You know he's saying that to make fun of you, right Dave?" His eyes became wide. "Whoa," he thought, "it never would have occurred to me that there could be a joke like that."

On that night, Dave realized that the West Coast is different.

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Comments (16)

How true that is! I too grew up on the West Coast. I went East for college, to Barnard College (across the street from Columbia). I was amazed by the number of people who had attended really fancy, really expensive, really old prep schools. Even more amazing was the way you would learn whether a person attended one of them within the first few minutes of conversation (at least as freshmen). I don't think it was out of arrogance; as I met more people, I realized that it was a fairly standard kind of introduction. People on the East Coast have pedigrees in the way that folks out West do not.

I remember being somewhat disappointed to learn that so many of these students from these uber-elite high schools slide right on into an Ivy League institution upon graduation. And that it was a fairly normal thing for a student of such a school to expect that they would continue onto an Ivy League school. No doubt, they were smart, but smarter than the smart kids at my high school who went to Berkeley and the other great Californian universities? I wouldn't say so. I'm not aware of any even quasi-official "feeder" schools for Berkeley or UCLA, but if I had to hazard a guess, the one that would be at the top of my list is actually a public high school in Irvine. Indeed, Conor, the West Coast is different.

I have to disagree - as an undergrad at a California high school, I would have had a definite opinion on the distinctions between Penn, Cornell, Brown, and Berkeley. But then, I applied to three of those schools, so it was in my interest to make the comparison.

Great post. As a Berkeley grad, who has spent some time on the East Coast, there really is a disconnect in certain circles.

While Berkeley obviously is competitive with all of these places academically, the obvious reason it is so different is that even with huge cost increases in recent years, it still costs less than $10,000 per year for tuition. Compared to over $35,000 at Ivys and other private schools, it really just doesn't make financial sense to go elsewhere, even if you (or your parents) can afford it. I never looked at other schools outside of California. When I was 17, I only had vague ideas about the various Ivy league schools - the main idea being that they were schools for the super-rich. I had never even heard of places like Middlebury or Wesleyan.

There really is no Berkeley or UCLA equivalent in the Northeast, so I can see why people just don't understand it. And I am sure Virginia and Michigan grads get the same treatment.

On the other hand, when I was in DC, Berkeley could be the best of both worlds - respectable enough to private school people, while not snobbish to the vast majority of folks that went elsewhere.

Chris A (Replying to: Kevin)
There really is no Berkeley or UCLA equivalent in the Northeast, so I can see why people just don't understand it. And I am sure Virginia and Michigan grads get the same treatment.

Absolutely. I noticed this as well when my New Jersey cousins came to Ohio to attend Oberlin and Ohio Wesleyan. Ohio's two-dozen or so private (but not necessarily elite) colleges are full of east coast students. Equivalent-level students from Ohio, on the other hand, are much more likely to attend Miami, Ohio U, Michigan, Indiana or Wisconsin, to name a few off the top of my head. There really is a difference.

This is a great post. The obsession with getting into Ivy League or similar colleges is more of an obsession on the East Coast than elsewhere, and it warps the views of people who live there regarding higher education. I grew up in and went to college in Texas (Rice) and then law school at Harvard, and while in my experience there certainly was an emphasis on getting into the best college or grad school you could, the idea that going to a good state school was a major loss would have been an absurd one. Part of that may be because Texas has a great public university system (not as good as California's, perhaps, but not too shabby), while many northeastern states don't, but that doesn't explain everything, and the reason why many northeastern states don't have good public higher education systems probably is a result of the attitude you mention.

One thing, however. You state that among "coastal elites, [t]here is an undeniable tendency among those from one coast to move to the other, rather than settling in the places disparagingly referred to as "flyover country." I'd agree that there is a tendency for people who live on the coasts to move among the coasts, but I'm not sure I'd say that's a characteristic of "elites" per se. From what I've seen, the people who grew up on the coasts who tend to be most dismissive of the idea of living anywhere but the coasts are middle-class strivers, not the elites. The elites on the coasts have plenty of ties with the local elites in the South, the Midwest or Texas (no, we aren't a part of either), and in my experience the people who can justifiably be referred to as East-Coast elites (social, cultural, economic or otherwise) are more likely to see the advantages of living in Dallas, Chicago or Santa Fe than someone who grew up in Queens or a dumpy part of Pennsylvania but has always wanted to move to Manhattan. See, e.g., the Bush family. While the phenomenon you mention is real, I think you are overly complimentary (or perhaps just misguided) to refer to it as primarily a phenomenon of elites.

Conor, have you ever heard someone genuinely refer to "flyover country"? I've never, ever heard it from a "coastal elite." Ever.

Freddie (Replying to: Freddie)

I'm not scolding, by the way. That sounds scolding and it wasn't meant to be. I'm just asking honestly whether that's ever actually been said by anyone when it wasn't used to complain about supposed elitism.

lise (Replying to: Freddie)

No I have never heard anyone refer to flyover country. Not once, except by some "social commentator" on television talking about coastal elitism.

I went to an Ivy League school (not one of the big three) because I didn't get into Berkeley. I'm not rich and don't come from a background that pushed such schools, but I did land a pretty nice scholarship.


State school for grad school, though. It makes more sense then, when there's no danger of getting lost in the large undergraduate population.

Young man from Iowa is admitted to Harvard. His roommate asks, "Where do you hail from ?".
Young man: "Iowa".
Roommate: "Well, at Harvard we pronounce it 'Ohio'".

I have to say, it's all a nice, neat, cliched, story, but completely false in my experience. I'm a born and bred New Yorker who went to Stanford and, there was certainly quite a bit of status awareness there, especially vis-a-vis Berkeley. It might be all in the nature of good-natured football rivalries, but 80,000 Stanford fans chanting "safety school" at Berkeley during a game is quite unmistakable. Stanford might be a bit of an exception in the grand scheme of West Coast society, but then so are Harvard, Yale, and Princeton relative to the entire population of the East Coast. I've met many a kid from a well-off home in West L.A. who was tutored, trained, and groomed from an early age to get into a top college just like his upper middle class peers in East Coast suburbs, and those kids were very aware of the difference between Stanford and Berkeley.

There is more symmetry to this phenomenon than you imagine. Nobody on the east coast has ever heard of Harvey Mudd, Claremont McKenna, Pomona or any of the other prestigious schools out West. And I mean that literally - I never heard of these schools until I was at least 25. Never knew U-W or UCLA are good schools, either (not that I assumed they were bad, I just figured they were like any other state school). The only schools we're aware of are Stanford and Berkeley.

And there's not quite as much regard for Ivies on the East coast as you imagine - I went to UPenn, which is constantly mistaken for Penn State. In my experience, Michigan and UVA are widely respected. And no, I have never EVER heard a single person refer to "flyover country".

I grew up in New England, and I had never heard of Dartmouth until my junior year of high school. Then I went there for college It had never occurred to me I'd go anywhere other than UMass like the rest of my family until I started destroying standardized tests and honors courses in 10th grade. Even now I find the Prestigious College thing inexplicable and tacky, and I'm glad I went to Dartmouth for that reason -- I got a great education for extremely cheap, EC elites are impressed when I have to talk to them, but nobody else in the world has ever heard of it.

I grew up in New England, and I had never heard of Dartmouth until my junior year of high school. Then I went there for college (insanely generous financial aid, beating full-tuition scholarships elsewhere). It had never occurred to me I'd go anywhere other than UMass like the rest of my family until I started destroying standardized tests and honors courses in 10th grade. Even now I find the Prestigious College thing inexplicable and tacky, and I'm glad I went to Dartmouth for that reason -- I got a great education for extremely cheap, EC elites are impressed when I have to talk to them, but nobody else in the world has ever heard of it.

I've also moved to the East Coast like you. And, I do really agree with you in every word. I had the same feeling.

Regards,
Steve Joe, HostGator Discount Specialist

I've also moved to the East Coast like you. And, I do really agree with you in every word. I had the same feeling.

Regards,
Steve Joe, HostGator Discount Specialist

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