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"In the city of my birth, I had a dream..."
Regionalist assumptions. 
20th-Jun-2009 12:06 pm
One of the most perceptive posts I've seen in a long time about what it means to be from the Northeastern United States (the authors says "East Coast," but he actually means Northeast), from the point of view of someone who is not from there.

It's a long post, and I heartily recommend reading it in full, but it can be distilled into two main points:

1) To people who grew up in or around New York City, New York is just a city.

2) People in the Northeast have incorporated a hierarchy of higher education institutions into their beliefs about personal worth.

Both, inasmuch as they are generalizations, are probably true. What's interesting, though, is how the author juxtaposes two "Northeasterner" assumptions, one of them wholly pragmatic, and the other decidedly not.

Yes, New York is "just" a city. For someone like me, who comes not from the city proper but from the greater metropolitan area (and who did not regularly visit FAO Schwartz as a child), Manhattan isn't so much a plausible place to live as it is a plausible place to go to work. Or take in a show/museum exhibit. Perhaps that is why I took so quickly to the loooooong commute back and forth from NYU, why, given a dearth of options, it seemed the most plausible--for most of my childhood my father worked in the World Trade Center. (Yes, the iconic Twin Towers pre-9/11.)

As for the whole Ivy League arrogance, well, yeah, it bothers me. There is no good evidence to prove that attending, say, Harvard as an undergrad over another institution results in a better life outcome, all other things being equal. I'm sure there is something to be said for the Old Boy Network you can plug yourself into as a consequence of getting your bachelor's there, but most eighteen year olds are not prepared to exploit it. I know I wouldn't have, at that age. Later on, if you're savvy, you may be able to turn other Northeasterners' school snobbery to your advantage, but even that seems a marginal fringe benefit.

I am occasionally troubled by the assumptions people make about me on the basis of where I come from. When dealing with people hailing from within the region, they tend to combine "New Jersey" with my last name and think: boorish, uncultured, possibly mafioso. Lately, though, because I attended NYU and clearly did not move cross-country in order to do it, people from other parts of the US have been associating me with "New York" and its associated glamour. I can't decide which is worse. I grew up in the woods, people; sidewalks are more civilization than I was accustomed to for the first eighteen years of my life!
20th-Jun-2009 07:42 pm (UTC)
*chuckles* Yeah, it was always that arrogance/high SES that made me insecure and then ultimately annoyed with everyone looking down on state schools--and the West coast in general--because we don't have long standing institutions like they do.

Like a priest at MHC said, "We are the frozen chosen." I thought that was ironic...

But then I also felt bad for those who grew up on the East coast who were also of the same SES as me. They had to stomach having doors of opportunity and fair education closed to them because they couldn't afford those pedigree institutions... Furthermore, they would then be looked down upon for going to community colleges or state schools.

It was all just annoying!
21st-Jun-2009 01:49 am (UTC)
"We are the frozen chosen." I thought that was ironic...

Good grief. Somebody actually said that at MHC?! Sounds like they're running a cult or something. >_<

Furthermore, they would then be looked down upon for going to community colleges or state schools.

I dunno if it's so much being looked down upon as it is getting an added prestige boost when you've got Harvard on your resume or something. This may become problematic because, yeah, depending upon your point of view, there are a lot of poor kids out there who could totally hack it but never even consider applying--and then privilege only reinforces itself.
20th-Jun-2009 08:49 pm (UTC)
I dunno how I feel about that assumption. I grew up in one of the wealthiest towns in the country (in Connecticut), but the "elite" schools were simply an issue of how smart you had to be to get a scholarship to, because unless you were otherwise a legacy (immediate family of someone who went there) there was no way you were getting in. The idea that the whole of the northeast regards value based on whether or not you were able to go to one of these schools is ridiculous to me. There are people who can and will get into them, but most of us simply can't and won't. Of the several thousands institutes of higher education in America, the vast majority are in this part of the country, many of them schools many people outside this part of the country have probably never even heard of, and all of them perfectly legitimate.

"State schools" are not something that I have ever encountered being equated with a lack of intelligence or value. The very fact that a person is able to get into a college at all is proof that they are "smart enough." Particularly in states like Connecticut and Massachusetts, that actually have good state schools (UConn is a very good school). I went to a SUNY myself and while I was probably several steps more intelligent than the average New Yorker that attended the school (I was in on a scholarship), I never thought of my university as something less than any other.

The way I grew up, the "elites" who went to "elite" schools were already priviledged, they didn't become so because they went to those schools, it was just that those schools were a natural progression of their priviledged paths in life. To me, if anything, it is the rest of the country that looks at these schools in an essentially inaccurate way. I've known people who went/go to Yale, and they aren't any "better" than I ever was (although some of them believed they were regardless).
21st-Jun-2009 02:01 am (UTC)
It's not a question of whether people who go to Harvard or Yale are "better" than people who don't--there's no necessary correlation. I do think, though, that your experience in high school was very different from mine, maybe because New Jersey doesn't really have that many great universities (and even if every college-bound student stayed in-state every year, there literally wouldn't be enough seats to accommodate them in-state).

Maybe it was just my segment of upper middle class suburbia, but brand name schools were incredibly important. The top of my high school graduating class (excluding myself, rebelling against the prestige grind) went to Harvard, Brown, Cornell, Georgetown, and Northwestern. We also had a student somewhat further down the class rank go to Princeton. I don't think we were all predestined for the Ivy Leagues or whatever, born into privilege...but maybe I lack the correct perspective.

I do think it's hard to deny, though, that Northeastern public universities do not bat at the level--vis a vis high-powered research institution--that their counterparts in say California, Texas, and the midwestern states tend to do. But of course, being a research institution doesn't matter at the undergrad level--who needs *the* pre-eminent Shakespeare scholar teaching them English 101, really?

At the graduate student level, prestige probably correlates somewhat better to educational quality, since a lot of the prestige of universities in this country stems from their research output. But even then institutional prestige doesn't always correlate perfectly with educational quality within specific disciplines. Anybody watching my Applying to Grad School Saga should have learned that by now. :P
21st-Jun-2009 02:23 am (UTC)

I do have to say, however, that as far as the "northeast" is concerned, college prospects are not necessarily related to which state you are from. The vast majority of any in-state university is comprised of only people in those states, but when I was applying to colleges (over ten years ago now, mind you) it was quite common for people to apply to state schools of other, nearby states. My sister went to Delaware, some friends to UMass, and I to a SUNY. The "borders" between states, if anything, in the northeast, is less about being in "other states" and more about how targetted by traffic cops you were going to be because you had out of state plates on your car (and therefore clearly a college student).

Indeed, I don't think it really does matter to anyone at an undergraduate level (unless in the rare cases you already have a post-graduate plan), but for the "big name schools," from what I understand, they are all "big name schools" whether you live in the northeast or not. It's not that we here have some kind of special understanding/feeling about the "prestige" of going to Harvard that people in the southwest do not. As far as I know, everyone in the country sees Yale and Cornell and Princeton in essentially the same way (as the places where the "elites" go to school, and the "cream" of the university crop). Whether or not that is warranted isn't really related to the way it is perceived. It just so happens that all of these schools are concentrated in the same area of the country, but that's as much to do with the dates they were founded in the long history of American geographical expansion.
21st-Jun-2009 03:11 am (UTC)
Actually, he whole feeling about not having to stay in-state for college also seems to be quite symptomatic of growing up in the Northeast. People from the Midwest and California who are my age say that going out of state is just bizarre and very rarely even considered.

It's not that we here have some kind of special understanding/feeling about the "prestige" of going to Harvard that people in the southwest do not.

Well, actually, that's exactly what the original post I linked to argued--that in other parts of the country they don't feel the same way about the Ivy League schools that we do on the East Coast. Or as conscious of their prestige relative to their own in-state public universities.
21st-Jun-2009 03:35 am (UTC)

Well, their states have fewer colleges, have bigger colleges and they live in much bigger states, so travelling to a college out of state is probably very expensive/time intensive. The northeast, by comparison, is very small. The states are smaller, the borders between multiple states closer together. The New England states, if collected together, probably have a similar land mass to some of the western states (and in fact, I just checked and the land mass is only slightly larger than that of North Dakota). I always thought it was funny that 12 Connecticuts could fit inside North Dakota, but the population of Connecticut is 5 times that of North Dakota. There are just way more people in this concentrated area that if collected and compared as one area, would dwarf any other part of the country in population, both numerically and in density (California isn't even in the top ten in density).

And I don't know that I agree with the argument that we are more "conscious" of the difference in prestige between "our" schools and the "elite" schools. I don't believe that a person in California would see "Harvard" on a resume and not think, "Oh, that's a big, important school, this guy must be big and important, too."

As for it being more "ingrained" in northeast culture, that may be true, but honestly, we simply have more schools here than any other place in the country, so we have more to talk about. It's easier to "rank" schools when you actually have enough schools to make a rank list. Knowing all the different schools, isn't about being "conscious" of them, its a simple matter of just being exposed to them. I remember getting brochures for dozens of colleges when I was looking in high school, and have met many many people in the years since college that have gone to many many different schools. When you consider that most people are born, live and die in a very small geographic region, for people outside the northeast, there probably isn't the diversity of even meeting people who went to so many colleges. To me the argument is based on incidental facts, and not some social conscious or self-consciousness of the culture.
22nd-Jun-2009 01:25 am (UTC)
I don't believe that a person in California would see "Harvard" on a resume and not think, "Oh, that's a big, important school, this guy must be big and important, too."

Well, everybody's heard of Harvard. But there are a lot of schools that are considered a Big Deal in the Northeast that people out West have never heard of. Williams College comes to mind, ditto Swarthmore...and Mount Holyoke, of course. *laughs*

To me the argument is based on incidental facts, and not some social conscious or self-consciousness of the culture.

I'm not sure I would go so far as to speculate upon *why* it happens, but I'm pretty sure even the mere exposure is indicative of some sort of acculturation that is not identical in other parts of the country.
22nd-Jun-2009 01:53 am (UTC)
Hm, but the guy in the post seemed to argue that people in this part of the country don't consider schools like Stanford or UC Berkeley among those high tier schools like the ones you just mentioned (and to be honest, only Williams College rings a bell to me, though I know I've "heard" the names of the other two), and I honestly disagree. I did grow up knowing those schools were prestigious. It seems to me this guy just has one douchebag friend whose worldview is very small and likes to rag on his other friends, and probably as a "joke." The "state school" comment is simply based on a general understanding that, in this part of the country at least, schools with state funding are easier to get into, and therefore have a lower "standard" of admission (generally because the legislature wants to give access to higher education to everyone who wants it), but at the same time, we all do essentially understand that just because a school is a "state school" it doesn't mean it sucks. It's a joke. Like ragging on Italians for all being in the mafia. No one actually believes we all are (unless they are a moron). It's not meant to be taken so literally or seriously. Maybe it's simply a matter of a difference in the sense of humor between people of different regions of the country.

If anything, I have found in my dealings with people from other parts of the country that they look for reasons not to like the northeast. There are two "outsiders" in my department at work. One is from Florida (the "voice of the south") and the other is from Wisconsin (the "voice of the midwest"). They both take great joy in ripping Connecticut apart for all of its "failings" at any given chance (bad drivers, rude/lack of consideration, blah blah). I'm not saying I wouldn't do the same if I were outside my general realm of cultural upbringing, but I consider their criticisms to be indicative of their own insecurities about their place in this new environment. It's like a regional scale of "patriotism." You defend the way you were raised and mock the way others were.

It rubs me the wrong way when people go out of their way to insinuate that certain people of a certain area, based entirely upon evidence gleaned from a very small data pool (two friends) are a certain way. I honestly hate generalizations, particularly ones that are made by people outside a group, looking at that group, but only focusing on the things that make them feel better about themselves. I'm not saying this is what this guy is doing. His thoughts were far too incomplete to even begin to presume what he meant by them, but it gives me that irritated feeling, like this is just a prelude to another ridiculously insulting rant against the "people" of my regional culture.
20th-Jun-2009 08:57 pm (UTC)
I don't know, I've lived in New Jersey for my entire life and I've never felt that pressure, maybe because I grew up in real New Jersey (South Jersey, not NY Junior up north) and I grew up poor so even my smartest classmates didn't attend Harvard or Princeton (best we had was one Tulane and one John's Hopkins). Also, unless you're trying to get a job in a Wall Street firm, and we all know how that turned out, I think the need for an Ivy League diploma is overblown. I think it's wrong for the author to generalize everyone on the Northeast into status obsessed, cosmopolitan Ivy Leaguers just as much as it would be wrong to generalize all Westcoasters in a certain way.
21st-Jun-2009 02:11 am (UTC)
I'm not sure that the author was characterizing the Northeast as status-obsessed, but rather status-*conscious*. The fact that we're even having this casual conversation at all about universities not in New Jersey (Tulane - New Orleans!, Johns Hopkins, etc.) in the context of their supposed quality would strike a lot of people from other parts of the country as truly bizarre. In my admittedly limited experience, most people from the Northeast that I know can give you the long list of prestigious institutions in order of descending prestige. The lists tend to agree, even if the people doing the listing never themselves aspired to attend any of these institutions, even if they don't "believe" in what the prestige is supposed to mean.

I was just in the Borders (Bridgewater = Central Jersey) last night and trying not to listen to some pedantic bore in the cafe telling everyone how his son got an NSF grant and how a recommendation from him (guess he's a science prof?) can get students full funding in PhD programs at Ivy League schools because he's a really Big Deal in his field. After that litany, the post struck a chord.

Could be a North/South Jersey culture clash though, too, to some degree.

(Fascinating icon, BTW. XD )
21st-Jun-2009 02:40 am (UTC)
I think most people in this country could name the Ivy League no matter where they live, but maybe I just think that because I live here. Even people in the Midwest and California aspire to attend Harvard or Yale. Other regions have their own prestigious institutions (Stanford, Tulane, Northwestern, etc...) but I think the Ivy League inhabits a certain place in American academia that transcends where you live. Now I couldn't tell you whether that place is deserved since I didn't attend an Ivy League school. As for the lists being similar, I would imagine it's akin to people being able to name the Seven Sisters schools. It's just something that someone put into a list that most people are aware of.

The icon is from the show Dollhouse, it's a conversation between the nerdy guy who programs the actives and the woman who runs the Dollhouse when they were all drugged.
21st-Jun-2009 03:15 am (UTC)
I think most people in this country could name the Ivy League no matter where they live, but maybe I just think that because I live here.

That's what the original author of the post I linked to was arguing--that people not from the East Coast/Northeast *can't* name the Ivy League past Harvard or Yale and are not particularly conscious of it in the same was as we might be. In my experience, what the poster was saying seems to be true for people not from the Northeast, but I'm only going by the people I know...and since I'm not a big fan of prestigious universities for their own sake, maybe it's selection bias on my part.

I would imagine it's akin to people being able to name the Seven Sisters schools.

Whoa. Can you name the Seven Sisters schools off the top of your head?? I don't think even most Northeasterners can do that!! (The women's college alumna is impressed. ^_~ )
21st-Jun-2009 03:19 am (UTC)
No, unfortunately I can't name the Seven Sisters. I also can't really name all the Ivy League schools either though. I think most people who can name one can name the other. I was never obsessed with the prestige of the school either, probably because I knew I had neither the money nor the grades for it. I went to a relatively expensive school but not one that was all that prestigious. I think most people who could conceivably get into an Ivy, regardless of their geographic location, could at least add Princeton and Cornell to that list.
21st-Jun-2009 03:26 am (UTC)
Well, you knew what the Seven Sisters schools are. XD Having even heard the appellation and knowing what it means is very regionally specific, in my humble experience (Simpsons and Scooby-Doo episodes aside).

I'd have to disagree with the last part of what you said, though. I think there are a lot of students out there who *could* get into an Ivy if they applied (and would do well if they enrolled)--but they don't apply because it never occurs to them or because they don't believe they'll be accepted or because they don't think they can afford it. The level of this tragedy is dependent upon how important you think going to the most prestigious university possible is, but there is no question in my mind that a lot of kids don't do college for the wrong reasons--race, class, etc.
21st-Jun-2009 03:35 am (UTC)
I think the first time I heard of them was on the Simpsons so take from that what you will.

I agree with you to a certain extent, though I think there are plenty of kids in NJ and elsewhere in the Northeast that forego an Ivy League education because they think they can't afford it or wouldn't get in. I'm of the opinion that an Ivy League education is meaningless unless you want to get into certain jobs in certain places. If you want to be a Democratic candidate for President, maybe, if you want to be a middle manager at a regional corporate HQ, probably not. In fact, Ivy League education could turn into a downside if the hiring manager feels you are "too qualified", or feels intimidated by that piece of paper. Those schools are largely places where the rich and connected from across the world can send their kids to be near other kids who are similarly rich and well connected and avoid the riffraff for the most part.
22nd-Jun-2009 01:32 am (UTC)
*laughs* I always tended to view the Ivy League schools as where middle/upper middle class parents sent their kids to *become* rich and well-connected. I'm not yet sure how well that actually works, but a lot of people (parents) are convinced that it does (otherwise, you wouldn't have the sort of "getting into college" market that you do).

And of course, the average salary difference between a high school graduate/no college, and somebody with a BA (from any college) is loathsomely large...
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