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Private-School Prominence, Public-School Pedigree

Well, it’s Monday. And unfortunately the fallout from Ann Coulter’s blatantly untruthful, anti-CALS quips against Keith Olbermann (and his own, sophomoric rejoinder to her tirade) continued over the weekend.

IvyGate has a couple of threads dedicated to the nuances of the pecking order of the Ancient Eight, HuffPo has close to 600 comments on the topic, and the conservative echo-chamber (which is too vile and scary to even warrant a link) is gleefully painting Olbermann to be a fraud despite all outstanding evidence to the contrary. Meanwhile, even the editors of the Cornell Review have opened a schism among their ranks; one called Coulter’s remarks “inexcusable” while another lauded them as “funny and made in jest.”

On one level, it’s a wholly embarrassing squabble between two talking heads that shouldn’t merit a second glance from dignified parties.

But on another level, I think it exposes something deeply revealing about the nature of Cornell – the inherent tension that exists between the school’s private-school prominence and its more public-school pedigree, or as Isaac Kramnick has so aptly labeled Cornell, “this Ivy League school with its Big Ten soul.”

As longtime readers will know, from the early days of this blog I have oft-derided invoking the Ivy League label when discussing anything other than our athletics associations, and I cringe every time a student columnist or a Cornell press kit invokes the label in some sort of prestige-seeking way. (Thankfully though, we’re not the worst in this habit...) I have even gone as far to suggest that Cornell may be better served in another sports conference.

The truth is that there is something inherently pathetic and bourgeoisie about championing by association. For instance, the website for the AEM program loudly proclaims that its students are ‘Ivy League Smart’, but I’m not quite sure what that means. And if you don’t believe me, look no further than Andy Bernard on The Office.

I suppose one could say that this all just part of Ezra's University -- parts of Cornell are known to be deeply, stridently bourgeoisie -- the upstart in the club who is known to not exactly follow all of the established social conventions: that you shouldn't be boastful, and even more importantly, you shouldn't call out your boastful associates in public for fear of bringing more ridicule to yourself. And Olbermann and Coulter play Andy Bernard's part perfectly. It's funny because it's true.

But Coulter’s erroneous comments (which she genuinely seems to believe) likely struck a nerve among many contract college students and alums for the very reason that we have likely heard the same backwards argument before – just never from a fellow alum. I can still remember being rudely and nonsensically chastised by a high school friend’s mother for attending the ‘non-Ivy’ Cornell after turning down two more selective institutions for the ILR School. (And God only knows how the students who came from out of state to study natural resources or nutrition or labor economics must feel.)

The sad thing is that the Ivy League was likely the last thing on our minds when we made our decision to enroll. I know that in my mind it boiled down to educational opportunities, distance, location, and character of the student body.

Likewise, there is something sadly anti-democratic and un-American about deriding Cornell’s land-grant roots. In many ways, Cornell’s contract with the State of New York is its greatest asset, providing a plurality of interests, but a common sense of pragmatic purpose on our unique campus. The failure to recognize the importance of Cornell’s public mission – and its myriad contributions to global nutrition, third-world development, labor standards, human development, and the like – speaks to just how backwards we have become as a society.

The challenge is that Cornell can more than stand on its own merits, but a combination of external expectations and internal insecurities can so easily distract our attention. Especially at this point in history, perhaps we should start focusing on the things that matter.

Matthew Nagowski | Posted on March 09, 2009 (#)

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