1990 / 3月
Laura Li /photos courtesy of Arthur Cheng /tr. by Peter Eberly
For quite a few people the mention of Ivy League schools conjures up images of late-autumn maple leaves and ivy-covered old buildings with nattily dressed young patricians milling about in their midst, each from a good family, the future core of the nation's ruling class. . . .
That impression diverges a bit from reality perhaps, but it's not too far off either. The eight schools of the Ivy League--Harvard (founded in 1636), Yale (1701), Penn (1740), Princeton (1746), Columbia (1754), Brown (1764), Dartmouth (1769), and Cornell (1853)--remain undiminished in repute to this day and are still the academic elite among American universities. Steeped in history and situated in the scenic and cultured northeastern part of the United States, the Ivy League schools enjoy many superior natural advantages. The Big Three of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton have dominated American education for more than two centuries, their monopoly lock on the top being broken only in the last thirty years with the rise of Stanford and Berkeley on the West Coast, which has dampened the Ivy League arrogance a bit.
Besides the Big Three, each of the other five schools is astonishingly strong as well. Dartmouth, for instance, little known in Taiwan, has just 4,500 students and a tiny campus, but it ranks sixth in the nation. All eight Ivy League schools are rated five star, and a strong sense of self-esteem has made them more or less overt rivals, none wanting to fall behind the others in terms of quality.
Interestingly enough, the term Ivy League, as resonant and imposing as it may sound, originally had nothing to do with academics. It was coined by a New York sportswriter in the 1930s in reference to the schools' rivalries in football and other sports. The eight universities created a formal athletic league in 1956, and intense matches in various sports each year serve to raise their sense of pride and uniqueness yet further.
All of the Ivy League colleges are privately operated. They are as expensive as they are selective, so that the average American student has no way to get in. Maybe no one minds in the vast West and Midwest, but in New England, where class thinking runs deep, the term Ivy League often produces a bitter taste.
In works of literature the term Ivy League invariably connotes vanity, affectation, hypocrisy, selfishness, snobbishness . . . and some young scions of the rich and powerful have refused to study there simply to accentuate their rebelliousness and sense of social justice. On the other hand, though, many students from impoverished backgrounds have tried every means they can think of to squeeze in, hoping that one day they too can rise to the top through their achievements.
The "Ivy League complex" has always been an interesting topic of discussion in America, and one whose symbolism is well worth exploring!
Red brick walls overgrown with green ivy: a symbol of the Ivy League. The picture is of Princeton University's Nassau Hall.