Whether you realize it or not, your schooling brands you — fairly or not — with its historic reputation in the perception of the mainstream, middling, public mind.
As a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, I have learned to expect to hear — after people outside of Nebraska meet me and learn I went to UNL — “Oh, a football school.”
That isn’t a compliment. I understand in many minds outside the Cornhusker state graduating from a university with a rich history of football success can brand one as having a permanent football mentality where first downs and quarterbacks matter more than grades and intellect, even if one never attended any athletic event as a student or alumnus.
The fact I was an English major at UNL in a respected Department — I was the first undergraduate to work in an editorial capacity on Prairie Schooner literary quarterly — and the fact that the UNL English Department was also the genius home of Pulitzer Prize winners Karl Shapiro and Ted Kooser — as well as being the original bedrock of the indelible Willa Cather who made her mind at UNL — did not matter in the merit of the small minds of those who judged me. Football is Big Money, and so Nebraska is, and shall always be, a “Football School” first and an intellectual center second — or perhaps even third after the tractor testing program.
Football and scholarly brilliance can never be equals, at least not in Nebraska anyway, where an entire state sadly still finds its international identity and its most public, polished, persona on the gridiron and not in the classroom. When I became a graduate student Presidential Scholar at Columbia University in the City of New York — and there’s a reason Columbia adds the “In the City of New York” to its official name because there are those, especially in the Midwest, who think “Columbia” means the University of Missouri-Columbia.
I knew I was buying my way into the Ivy League by wanting to study theatre and the history and meaning of a philosophical aesthetic in the greatest city in the center of the world. I didn’t even mind, much, the high price I paid for tuition and housing because Columbia University in the City of New York gave me access to power and influence and some of the greatest minds on earth. There is no doubt Columbia helped rub away the old “Ew, you’re from a football school” glower I’d get with those who felt a UNL diploma meant I was only of the pigskin mentality.
Now people find it disarmingly charming I was trained “in both the backwoods and The Big City” and they think I have perfectly split the duality of the American Experience.
Perhaps they are right. There’s an old saying in academe that “Only The Last School Matters” and that means if you plan to press yourself into an ongoing education beyond a basic bachelor’s degree, your undergraduate school doesn’t matter much in the long view. You can save your money for a graduate school with an international, sterling, reputation by attending a less expensive public college because “only where you end matters.”
Only your final degree, those who claim to know say, succinctly defines your intellect and prowess and aptitude. We all know that isn’t true. We all know a dumbcake can just as easily graduate from Columbia University in the City of New York as from UNL, but the power of the brand, the Ivy League beating The Big 12; 1754 trumping 1869; the Lions mauling the Huskers; Low Library vs. Love Library; Morningside Heights over downtown Lincoln are all evidence of the longevity of reputation and excellence that cannot easily be overcome by pretenders to the higher education throne.
All of it adds up in the sum of it to a certain, chilling, Cudgel Effect your school can brand for you on others — or against you from others — and, yes, that doesn’t make cudgeling right and that doesn’t make cudgeling good, but cudgeling is a reality with roots in the history of a nation that has always been a sycophant for the reputation of shine and glisten over the realness of the earth and hard work.
Did you attend college?
If yes, where? If not, why not?
How do people react when you tell them the name of your college?
Did you attend graduate school?
If so, what is the name of your school, and did your graduate program have a better or a worse reputation in the minds of the middling mainstream than your undergraduate college?