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Brenda Wang
Frankly, My Dear

There’s a part in Coraline where the talking cat imparts a particular little nugget of wisdom:

“Cats don’t have names. Now you people have names. That’s because you don’t know who you are. We know who we are, so we don’t need names.”

I think about this whenever I see Penn’s website (the University of Pennsylvania is an American private Ivy League…) or walk past a tour on Locust (…as an Ivy League institution that is part of the Ivy League…) or am waiting in line for an overpriced salad (…well I knew I wanted to go to an Ivy…).

The term “Ivy League” began in the early 20th century as a way to refer to the collegiate northeastern football league. The official 1945 “Ivy Group Agreement” was “for the purpose of reaffirming their intention of continuing intercollegiate football.”

Today the descriptor “Ivy League” doesn’t exactly conjure visions of NCAA excellence. The Ivy League is now almost universally synonymous with elitism — both academic and social. However, where Ivy League schools differ from other academically competitive schools like Stanford and MIT is their perceived socioeconomic privilege. Whether true or not, there are nonetheless powerful associations that come with this label — Tom Buchanan, Wall Street, ivory towers, WASPs.

This is not to say that elitism is bad, when it is deserved. And academically, Penn students do deserve to be distinguished as some of the brightest and most dedicated students around.

The issue is that we have become so consumed by our own name that we don’t really know who we are. I can’t help but detect a frisson of desperation when the University slathers the Ivy League label on every possible surface. What exactly is under all that Ivy?

I think the key lies in that fact that identifying ourselves through our place in an elite club is too easy to resist. But by subsuming our identity into a group stereotype, positive or not, we restrict the possibility of self-discovery. We stagnate. No school will get kicked out of the League; no school will be added. We can make like Nero and play “The Red and the Blue” while Rome burns.

I’m not naive enough to think that the board would ever allow us to actually leave the League. But we should at least stop calling ourselves “Ivy League” as some sort of all-encompassing identifier and start asking the hard questions. Would Penn by any other name still smell as sweet? Penn has students dedicated to inspiring initiatives in all different fields — when someone thinks “Penn,” they should think “social activism” or “entrepreneurship” or “awesome research,” not just “one of the Ivies.” We need to define ourselves by our actions, not our history.

Some might argue that “Ivy League” is just a harmless marketing term. But names have power. Our identity is in part created by our social identity as Penn students, and the absence of a strong individualism in the University can permeate the student body as a whole.

We need to figure out who we are without our Sperrys.

Brenda Wang is a rising College sophomore from Chandler, Ariz. Her email address is “Frankly, My Dear” runs biweekly during the summer.

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