Cow College Versus Ivy League

I’ve been thinking about the psychological roots of the anger between the two parties.
It’s not simply political, that’s clear. It’s ethnic, demographic, geographical and many other things that have been explored by a lot of people.

One element that hasn’t attracted that much attention though is one that’s always struck me quite strongly – the anger directed toward people with Ivy League or elite school educations by those who attended humbler schools. The “cows and the ivies” is where some of the class-warfare of today is played out.

We hear a lot about how the poor and middle-class envy the rich, but I’m not thoroughly convinced by the thesis. Most of the people I’ve talked to seem to admire the rich in the most uncritical sort of way. They ape their life styles as best they can. And they ascribe to rich people all sorts of virtues they think they lack themselves, when in point of fact, great wealth (I’m talking about tens of millions and more) is usually the result of many other things besides hard work and skill. It also takes luck, contacts, and some money to start with. It takes a certain kind of personality – a not very admirable one, often. Everyone knows Balzac’s line about there being no great fortune without a crime behind it..

The truth is money alone doesn’t confer enough status to provoke envy. Who envies a rich garbage man? No one.

And no one envies bankers these days, no matter that they keep making money. They’ve lost their status. It’s status that provokes envy.

And today, the most obvious and common insignia of status is graduating from an elite school. The left side of the political spectrum is associated, rightly or wrongly, with the high status universities – with Ivies like Princeton, Yale, Harvard, and Wellesley – as well as with all the other universities, which, though not Ivy, are considered elite, such as, Brown, Columbia, Duke, Chicago, Stanford, Johns Hopkins, or Wellesley. Cornell.

On the elite list are also some public universities, like Berkeley, and a couple of more conservative schools, like Chicago and Dartmouth.

But, in general, the elite schools are associated with liberal-left politics and with internationalism. The cow-colleges (and we’re fond of cows ourselves) have become the terrain of a kind of chip-on-the-shoulder nationalism and conservatism (of course, I’m simplifying this terribly).

This leads to a lot of hilarious posturing by the cow crowd – about effete elites (read Boston Brahmins, Jews), decadence (not sure what that’s supposed to mean – perhaps feminists and homosexuals?), affirmative action (read, Hispanics and Blacks) etc. etc. – although by and large these schools are as – or more – likely to have middle-class students than the state universities. And though affirmative action – if one were to include women and legacy students – surely benefited whites far more than it ever did non-whites.

I recently came across an example of this envy in a bit of resume-massaging. Someone who studied at a locally respectable state university (Georgia State), was a very mediocre student (C’s and low B’s), and then paid for a year’s study at Oxford – or was it at Heidelberg? (something anyone with money can do), inverted the order of their studies on their resume thus:

“Studied politics at Oxford and at Georgia State…”

This mean little ruse gives the false impression that the student was admitted competitively to the rigorously selective undergraduate program at Oxford – an academic achievement of a much higher caliber than mere attendance.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that the Georgia State student might not be smart or might not do very well in life. He might. But the deception betrays a certain envy – the same envy that, unfortunately, I detect in some of the populist hatred of liberal “elites.”

I say that objectively, since I’ve no great love for those elites myself. But I have even less love for the anti-intellectualism of some parts of the right. For its open contempt for scholarship, intellectual striving, cosmopolitan sympathies, and international standards – things that to me are the essence of decent liberalism.

That’s the kind of liberalism with which I have no quarrel, no matter if its politics differs from mine. No matter if it embraces the state more than I do. I am any day closer to that liberalism than to the yahoo know-nothing right.

And, as always, the ever insightful – if often spiteful – Anne Coulter manages to find an example of the envy I’m talking about not in a conservative, but in the kind of liberal I don’t like – Keith Olberman.


“Finally, you can stop pretending that you went to the hard-to-get-into Cornell.
Now you won’t have to quickly change the subject whenever people idly remark that they didn’t know it was possible to major in “communications” at an Ivy League school. No longer will you have to aggressively bring up Cornell when it has nothing to do with the conversation. Relax, Keith. Now you can let people like you for you.”

That’s on Olbermann’s constant derision of cow-college graduates and his name-dropping about the “Ivy” he went to, when he actually studied “communications” at the agricultural school affiliated to Cornell.

Update: Correction. Cornell contradicts Anne Coulter’s description of Olbermann’s alma mater.

Here is a latter written to someone who asked about the criticism:

Dear Tammie,

Many people have contacted us about the false and negative statements about Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences being made by Ann Coulter in the media recently.

Cornell as a whole–and all of its colleges–are considered “Ivy League.” The term “Ivy League” was initially used by sportswriters, and became the official name in 1954 of the NCAA Division I athletic conference to which Cornell belongs. The “Ancient Eight” are Cornell, Princeton, Brown, Yale, Dartmouth, University of Pennsylvania, Columbia, and Harvard. Additionally, CALS admits 1 out of every 5 applicants, as does the College of Arts & Sciences.

Please feel free to watch Mr. Olbermann’s response on his Countdown show at:

Thank you for your concern about the College.


Ellen Leventry
Web Communications Specialist
College of Agriculture and Life Sciences
Cornell University

Apologies. Ms. Coulter was apparently off-base on that. Hmm. Why am I not surprised? But her larger point stands, I believe.

Karen de Coster on Matt Yglesias on Public School Funding…

Hmm..some flying fur:

Matt Yglesias has a blog post called “School for Rich Kids Isn’t Charity” to which Karen de Coster administers several unkindest cuts.

The gist of Yglesias’ argument is that private school tuition money should be taxed because it’s money that really ought to be going to public schools, if those varmint parents only knew their duty to the state.

Well, first, as Ms. de Coster points out, those private school parents (and everyone else) are already paying for public schools through property taxes. So what Yglesias is asking for is a punitive second tax, for the sin of opting out (with your own money) of the free goodies the state wants you to have to make you yet another dependent. A dependent who will then be a reliable vote for expansion of the state.

Ms. de Coster is a CPA who’s probably (?) never taught in a school, private or public. I have.
[Note: this seems to have come off as a brush-off. It’s not meant to be. Just explaining why I think I have something to add, from anecdotal experience, to a theoretical debate].

So let me toss my two cents in.

From my experience (and it’s not extensive), public schools have problems but they’re not caused by lack of money primarily For my part, I made better money teaching in a public school for troubled inner-city children than I ever did teaching in private schools. There was grant money coming to the school. Whether it was usefully spent or not I don’t know. Everyone worked, but the students came from such difficult backgrounds (routine gun fights in their neighborhood, missing parents, pervasive drug addiction, an AIDS patient in one case, malnourishment, street life with its attractions and traps, it was an uphill and probably futile task. The school folded up in three months when the funds suddenly vanished.

Private school wasn’t always much richer but it was different. One of my first jobs teaching in the US was teaching music at a private boy’s school. It was supposedly part-time but I got into the classroom at 6:30 and left only at 3:00, with my time entirely taken up by classes and prep. I was paid $4000 a semester for that. (Fortunately it was only one of three jobs I held at the time). It was probably the hardest work I ever did. There were between 20-35 rather rambunctious boys between the ages of five and 14 who didn’t take kindly to choral instruction, music theory, or my accent. One asked me with disdain why I didn’t look like Vanna White, his heroine (he was nine). Another was so disruptive I had him stand in the corner, where he created more disruption by announcing sotto voce that the art teacher was being undressed by the geography teacher, and he could see it through a hole in the wall. (There was no hole in the wall. Like Saki’s heroine, he was a specialist in romance at short notice).

He was all of five, had a tow head and a face like a cherub, but it didn’t stop him from calling everyone a “d*** face” whenever he had a chance. I finally had to talk to his mother, who received my complaints frostily. Angel-face had already told her that naughty teacher has used the word “wimp” to his preciousness (I’d jokingly told him not to be a wimp but to come up and join the rest of the band)…. which had left him too shaken, poor darling, to continue.

As for “d*** face,” she was sure he would never use such language, she said, in a tone that let me know she was sure I would…..

What I’m saying is that private school can be as tough and underpaid as any public school. And there can be just as uncooperative parents and difficult children.

Money isn’t the main problem with public schools. The problem in the inner cities is the environment in which the school and the children are forced to function; the administrators who have no conception of what’s needed; and a culture that doesn’t support learning.

My high school in India was half-built and lacked running water in one of the labs. I remember sitting on sand in one class. We had no xerox machines, no computers, no type-writers or calculators in the class. There was a broken-down piano (an enormous luxury in India), old books sent to us from America for the library. We loved them for the glossy pictures, lively text and smooth pages. Our own Indian text-books were printed smudgily on cheap paper, rarely had pictures, and tended to be litanies of facts. It was in those old discarded text books that I first read about Robert Fulton and the steam ship and the duel between Burr and Hamilton. It didn’t make a difference that I read it leaning against an old pile of bricks, doodling in the sand, while a nineteen-year old, in a green sari and a huge rose in her bun, sang out the endless details of the Tree-tee of Ver-sigh-liz, while the boys tried to catch her eye.

It didn’t make a difference to our education because there was a culture of learning. The students came from households that were often struggling to pay the bills, for whom uniforms and books and lunch boxes on small middle-class Indian salaries was an enormous sacrifice. But those households placed an extremely high value on learning and accomplishment. They were largely professional or academic families. If a teacher scolded or punished us, our parents took the teacher’s side (for the most part). We didn’t have television to distract us. We had structured time to study at home. We had standards demanded from us. We had people who had a firm grasp, if not of their subject, of the role they had to play in the class room.

Matt Yglesias often has interesting things to say. But on this one, Ms. de Coster is right. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Money isn’t the central problem in public schools. I doubt that it’s even really a major problem.