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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!
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.
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