A breaking of the rules

In one of my pedagogy courses this semester, we’re discussing diversity and inclusion in higher education classrooms.  Our professor encouraged us to avoid fostering a “measuring stick” or competitive atmosphere by asking students to share personal stories about discrimination in class.  I definitely see the logic in this strategy, so I will begin this post by apologizing because I’m going to break from that rule a tad.  I will, though, try to keep my anecdote to a minimum both because I agree that the focus should be on theory and critical thinking and because I know that my story of woe is not all that woeful at all.  That’s not to say that it doesn’t irk me, however.

With that being said, I find it interesting that it is socially acceptable, even in an intellectual and highly diverse group of people, to stereotype and demean certain types of people, especially types of people who are deemed privileged.  I’m thinking of a specific group, of course, one of which I am a part – ivy league students.  I don’t tend to tell a lot of people I meet that I attended an ivy league university for my undergraduate studies.  Firstly, it would admittedly make me sound like a complete tool if I went around bragging about my bachelor’s degree.  Secondly, and more importantly for me, I tend to get negative reactions from it, and I feel as though people judge me.  Whenever the topic of ivy league students is brought up, most seem to jump to certain assumptions, usually about affluence, pedigree, and inheritance.  For example, in said class, when the professor asked what students needed in order to get in to Harvard, the first answers that I heard shouted out were “legacy!” and “a rich family!”  While I’m sure it could cost a lot of money to attend Harvard, I, much like the professor it seemed, found it shocking that the first necessity mentioned wasn’t good grades.  Indeed, this instance is just one example of the vitriol that is often directed at the ivy leagues, and it never ceases to surprise me that people immediately assume that an ivy league student comes from money, didn’t necessarily earn their admission, and must also be conceited and condescending.  I am not a legacy (my father didn’t even go to college), I come from a lower middle class family in rural Ohio, and I don’t look down my nose at people.  Certainly, there are some students at ivy league schools who DO fit that stereotypical profile, but a large portion do not.  Nearly every time that an ivy league school is brought up, I cringe, and I typically end up feeling sheepish, or even ashamed.

In our society, I am certainly not surprised that we associate certain stereotypes with groups of people; I’m definitely guilty of it myself.  What I find most interesting (and sad) is that it seems to be a societal norm that even the educated, otherwise accepting types can spit venom at certain groups of people.  Of course, having access (whether through legacy, hard work, or both) to any high-quality education is a privilege and no tears should be shed for the cause, but does that mean that it’s all right to publicly ridicule them as a group?  I find it hard to believe that sharing stereotypes aloud about other social, political, or demographic groups would find the same amount of support.  I think the lesson here is that all students, no matter their background, should feel safe in our classrooms.  We can’t always tell what identities our students bring into the classroom with them, so we shouldn’t make blanket assumptions about ANY group.  I certainly don’t want to ever make any of my students feel as small as I sometimes feel when people make assumptions about me.

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2 Responses to A breaking of the rules

  1. Thank you for sharing your perspective. I appreciated the honesty and vulnerability of your post – you shared a part of yourself that can’t have been easy to put in an open forum.

    I’d like to admit to being one of those students who responded negatively in class to the question of attending an Ivy league school. My own experience is one of a person who applied for undergrad to both Princeton and Cornell, but did not get accepted to either. On one hand, a good friend of mine from high school who was not a legacy did get accepted and attend Princeton, and I have never had anything but respect for him both as a person and as a student. On the other hand, I’ve known two people in my adult life who attended Cornell, both of whom are third-generation legacy, and neither of whom have lived up to the expectation that an Ivy league education implies.

    I would guess that the animosity you may be feeling toward you as an Ivy leager is due to the perceived instances of injustice that your colleagues have either experienced personally or have seen in the media. The media in particular loves to latch on to examples of privileged ivy league graduates who are vaulted to positions of power, who concurrently struggle to put together coherent sentences and can come across as freeloaders (i.e. young George W. Bush). We see the number of politicians who are identified as having an ivy league pedigree, and their success is almost always attributed (in the media) to their privilege and not to their capability.

    Conceptually, we understand that the majority of students at these institutions are there based on their own merit, but emotionally we disregard these students because we don’t feel strongly about them one way or another. Legacy students who attend based on their family history may comprise a small minority, but they quickly generate those visceral feelings of anger/frustration at injustice, and these are the responses you may be perceiving as being directed at you.

    I personally recognize that my qualifications were not good enough to justify my admittance to those institutions, but I hope I wouldn’t judge people who did attend based on that. I’ll admit to holding ivy league attendees to a higher standard/expectation than other graduates, but isn’t that exactly the intended assumption/result of such an education? Were I a business owner I’d hire an ivy leaguer over a graduate of my alma matter any day of the year.

    I’m sorry that the responses of myself and others in both the pedagogy class and in life have made you feel small, because in truth your education is something to be very proud of. I hope you can keep in mind that there are instances of injustice in the ivy league admittance process, and that you shouldn’t feel small in the future because these highly emotional events drown out the majority case of admittance of highly capable and extremely hard-working individuals.

  2. bstout

    Thank you for your thoughts, John. I can definitely understand the emotional responses that you mention, for I, too, get frustrated when things seem to be unfair, as things often ARE unfair. I will definitely try to keep those responses in mind when I find myself feeling that way again – it’s a good lesson to remember that usually what people are saying has more to do with their own personal experiences and less to do with your own.

    I also realize now that perhaps my post was a bit too finger-wagging. Let me be clear – I am absolutely guilty of doing the same thing to others. In fact, reflecting on this topic has made me realize when I have probably said things that might have made some of my students feel small. Some of those things are born in jest (like when we sometimes talk smack about UVA – what if a student’s entire family went to school there? What if someone’s father teaches there? Etc.) and some are masked in unexamined prejudices (like the time that I mentioned my being afraid of being stranded in a small town in West Virginia – obviously, I was expressing some stereotypes about West Virginia, some of which are surely not true at all or not true of all places. What if one of my students has roots in WV? I knew that none of them had current WV home addresses, but that means little. I really can’t and shouldn’t make assumptions). I guess mostly I’ve learned, through my own experiences and through a critical thinking “deep dive,” that I (we?) should be more mindful of unexamined stereotypes and assumptions, no matter how socially acceptable they may seem.

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