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the ivy league: blue bloods, secret societies and the birth of preppy

Edited by: Seetha Raj
on May 17th, 2012
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Pop quiz! What do Dr. Seuss, George W. Bush, Edward Norton, Yo-Yo Ma and Langston Hughes all have in common? According to the philosophy of Rick Santorum, they are all snobs because they graduated from an Ivy League school. This is what I pondered while surrounded by a sea of smart, navy blazers, plaid shirts and loafers, at Assouline’s refined book launch for The Ivy League. Sitting in the backyard of Nolita’s Gant Rugger store, I started reliving my own collegiate days as I listened to conversations debated in the same youthful exuberance…world affairs, Romney vs. Obama, health care and the overall state of the union. The Ivy League is a wonderful and intimate snapshot of its eight prestigious member-schools: Harvard, Yale, U. Penn, Princeton, Columbia, Brown, Dartmouth and Cornell. Filled with interesting trivia and anecdotes, it’s as informative and inspiring as a campus tour.

I sat down with author, Daniel Cappello to find out more about his days at Harvard, the differences between the eight schools and if he belonged to any of the secret societies.

What inspired you to work with Assouline and write a book about the Ivy League schools?

I got a phone call from Martine and Prosper Assouline asking me to come in and talk about the Ivy League. Their son was applying to college, and they couldn’t find a book that brought all of the Ivy League schools together at once, to really paint a picture of what each one was about. They knew I had gone to Harvard, and they were full of questions about what made one school different from the next. By the end of our conversation, we had an idea for a book of our own—one that would summon the spirit of each Ivy League school while distinguishing what sets them apart, from dominant political stances to athletic rivalries, architectural styles, fashion sense, and so on.

So as an alum of Harvard’s undergraduate school, what are some of your favorite memories from there?

There are so many things about Harvard—and the city of Cambridge—that make me nostalgic: running along the Charles River and crossing the footbridges; lectures in the John Knowles Paine Concert Hall; seeing Harvard Yard in the glow of lamplight at night; warm breakfasts in the Leverett House dining hall on freezing-cold mornings. But certainly one of my greatest memories is of a really special evening from early in my freshman year, at a benefit for the Harvard Art Museums. I think it was my first date in college, too: black-tie and dancing in the palazzo-style courtyard of the Fogg Art Museum.

Yale has the infamous “Skull & Bones” society. Princeton is home to high-class eating clubs. Harvard has the famed Harvard Lampoon and the Hasty Pudding Club. Were you a member of any special societies during your collegiate years?

I had a somewhat atypical experience in that I ended up spending a lot of my undergraduate time off campus, at the JFK Library and Museum in Boston. I started working at the Library during my freshman year, just as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s papers and effects were coming in after her death, and I ended up spending most of my “free” college time working there on the expanded, permanent exhibit about her as First Lady. Though it left with me little time to devote to on-campus clubs and societies, it was a unique front-row seat to history.

My father was accepted to Harvard, but due to circumstances had to decline the offer. I grew up always hearing him obsess that one of his kids will go there. How do you explain this fascination with Harvard and the other top-rated Ivy League schools that sit in the North East?

I think that these schools have always captured a certain part of the American—and now global—imagination. They’ve always been known as bastions of prestige, authority, tradition, and influence. Of forty-four U.S. presidents, fourteen have attended an Ivy League school, and the list of notable graduates—and their many accomplishments like Nobel, Pulitzer, and other prizes—is long and extensive. As a collective “brand,” for lack of a better word, the Ivy League came to stand for an idealized notion of the leafy, red-brick educational institution with all the trappings of distinction, fortune, and possibility that go with it—the American Dream itself, if you will.

I love how you described each of the eight schools as distinct brands. Princeton is the “Preppy Ivy”, Harvard is the “Ivy’s Ivy” and Yale as the “Classic Ivy.” In your opinion, what influenced the evolution of these distinct identities? How do you think these identities evolved for each school?

Sometimes it goes back to their founding roots. Brown, for instance, might be said to trace its very liberal, embracing spirit back to its first days. Providence, Brown’s home city, was founded on the principle of religious freedom, as a reaction to the puritanical Massachusetts Bay Colony. So Brown was the first Ivy League school to abolish religious exams and accept students from all religions. 

Dartmouth, meanwhile, was founded by a pioneering Colonial reverend who wanted to open a college for both Native Americans and white Anglo-Saxons. Hanover hasn’t changed much since then—it’s still something of a woodsy Colonial town, set in a very physical landscape that’s appealing to physically active people. This athletic, strong-in-body-so-strong-in-mind ethos continues to ring true at Dartmouth—or the Rugged Ivy, as I call it.

Princeton’s private eating clubs have long influenced its preppy, club-like reputation. Club life carries with all sorts of codes and expectations of dress, manners, and behavior, which have only perpetuated a refined preppy look at Princeton.

There has been an enormous amount of attention lately on the rising costs of higher education. Today, Harvard costs an average of $62,500 (incl. housing and living expenses) per year.  Besides looking at academic credentials, what do you think Ivy League hopefuls should consider when choosing the right college?

It’s important to identify what you’re looking to get out of your college experience and then think about which school will make that experience as fulfilling as possible. If you’re interested in a certain field or study, does the school you have your heart set on really have the best program in that field? Also, some people might need or thrive in a more urban setting, while others might be better suited to a rural or sheltered environment. There are tangibles, like costs, and intangibles, like gut reactions. Visiting campuses, asking pointed questions, getting a feel for the student body and social life, and making sure you’ve found a place where you will excel are all things worth considering. But I do think it’s important to look at everything in front of you before making a decision based merely on name or reputation alone.

The Ivy League is available online and at Assouline boutiques around the world. 



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