Privilege Blog

Where Did You Go To School? Part 1

Photo of the Princeton Tiger, sitting in the square now surrounded by J. Crew, Banana Republic, and their ilk….

While, were you me, you would not ask, “Where did YOU go to school? (somehow you just know not to ask because, you see, you might embarrass someone) you will certainly say at some point, “Where did he go to school?” It’s one of those questions High WASPs ask almost reflexively. As I think about the last time I asked that question, it was actually, “Oh, did he go to Stanford too?”, since the wife had been identified as a Stanford alumna. It’s the way I asked it that strikes me now. Under my emotional breath. Asking it without thinking, embarrassed to be asking it, pretending I wasn’t asking it, pretending I’m not the university snob that in fact, of course, I am.
In the old days, let’s say the days of my grandfather, the question among High WASPs simply meant, “Did you go to Harvard, to Yale, or Princeton?” To be accepted to those places in those days all you needed was a diploma from Andover, St. Paul’s, Exeter, or others of type. And to attend those boarding schools all you needed was a certain pedigree, money, and the capacity not to get arrested and actually thrown into jail, as it is hard to attend a boarding school when incarcerated. In my father’s day I don’t think the question changed.
Of course you could not have asked my mother the parallel question. In her case the question would have been, did you attend Smith, Vassar, or possibly Mt. Holyoke?

In my generation the question becomes more complex. Let me answer it therefore about myself. But I must first tell you where I didn’t go. I didn’t go to Harvard. My father went to Harvard. My uncle went to Harvard. My middle sister and younger brother went to Harvard. My grandfather went to Harvard. And then many other great-thises and great-thats went to Harvard. The family name is carved in various places. And no, to set expectations, it is not a name recognized in general parlance.

I didn’t go to Smith or Vassar either. My mother and aunt did, respectively.
I went to Princeton. That’s what that tiger thingie is doing at the top of the page. I went to Princeton and my daughter is at Princeton and my son is at Princeton. I own a raw silk blazer printed all over with Tommy Bahamas-genre tigers peeking out of an archetypal yet imaginary palm frond jungle. Not discrete abstract high design tigers either. Not conceptual tigers. Big cheesy tigers. Stripes. Eyes. Teeth. Even whiskers. And, I own a straw fedora. More tigers running rampant round a band at the crown. Why do I, I who have trouble with all kinds of inappropriate attire issues, own these things? I wore said items to my 25th Reunion. Yes. Well.

3 Responses

  1. I come from a similar background. If you need proof in the pudding, I am a fourth generation polo player with an Ivy League diploma. I am, I would presume, just a smidgen older than your children. Your blog has amused me greatly. I hate to be the bearer of bad news as I wish it were not so. We are dying. Correction, our kind is dead and decaying. We do not look out for one another and we readily abandon our heritage to assume that of another. We have lost our cultural soul to "modern" ways. While I appreciate your blog as a window into the last recesses our heritage, our day in the sun is over. I hope you instill these values in your children, to pass them onto your grandchildren because Heaven knows this is no longer the way the world works and they will not learn it out there.

  2. I too came from a similar background. My father was a Princeton alumnus who had the exact pedigree you described: went to the right school, had the money, and even managed to attend during the difficult days of the depression. My mother is a Smithie.

    From there, I was raised in the “nicest” neighborhood, in the “most elite” suburb of NYC. But, something changed and the idea of attending an ivy wasn’t a given. Our day in the sun was over, as noted above. Perhaps the reality to maintain that lifestyle was too hard for my parents when alcohol consumed their life, as it did my father’s. Over the past 50 years, I have seen this same town grow and expand and it doesn’t feel like the swanky town it was once was when I wore child-sized rose colored glasses.

    The idea of who gets into and who goes to an ivy league school has changed too. My kids didn’t make the ivy cut, since grandparents’ degrees carry no weight in the admissions process, and they aren’t a proud member of an URM. No, instead of relying on their legacy, they had to forge their own path, since neither I nor my husband went to an ivy. Luckily, they are far more prepared and appreciative of how to make something of their life, starting from their top-10 college, than I ever was.

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