MASKO: Yale’s heartland disease

Growing up, I had extended family across the country: in Washington, D.C., Minnesota and New Orleans. My relatives were always ready with some piece of self-deprecating humor, but beneath the eye-rolls or exasperated sighs, they were deeply attached to their homes and the local attitude, ethic and even food (easily defensible in New Orleans’ case, harder in Minnesota’s). As I learned from visiting them, their love affair with the local culture was typical. Entering my time at Yale, I looked forward to a similar culture of students who could not wait to bring a piece of their unique parts of America with them to college.

This enthusiasm indeed proved to be one of the great things about being at Yale. But shortly after arriving, after seeing a strange phenomenon several times, something seemed wrong. While people from my home area of New England (America’s Dunkin Donuts, fried clam and mafia corridor) wore their love of the Northeast on their sleeves, many of those from America’s center and South seemed less enthusiastic. To be sure, I’ve known plenty of Yalies who can’t get enough of their heartland home, but these have proved to be the exception, not the rule. And given the reactions to a classmate’s profession of coming from one of the places academics love to hate, their nervousness about (or even willingness to disown) their place of origin is no surprise. While many of these students are disaffected heartlanders preaching to an East Coast choir, many more are students searching for toleration in a school where they don’t expect to be tolerated.

So many of these conversations arrive at tales of the disaffected Midwesterner or Southerner’s own disillusionment — when he realized for the first time that he was surrounded in Georgia by uneducated racist bumpkins, or when his Texas teacher first revealed her latent “heteronormativity.” These stories are usually followed by a sheepish and relieved smile to those sitting around them, a plea for their sins to be absolved.

These students are involved in an endless battle to convince everyone who can be convinced that they are not one of “them.” Whether this disease owes itself to real disillusionment or a reaction to Yale’s prejudices toward the cultures beyond its walls is hard to know. All I do know is that for an inordinate number of students I have met from the South and Midwest, the first instinct of their public persona, when the subject turns to their home state, is shame.

Often this shame is associated with their home states’ overriding social conservatism, one of Yale’s favorite political bogeymen. This conservatism is something coast Yalies are confused by and find easier to dismiss than to actually address or understand. In doing this, we marginalize a solid half of our country and expect those who come from that half to renounce it, too.

Of course, not every Midwestern or Southern student I’ve known at Yale fits this description. But, an unfortunate side effect of Yale’s Southern-Midwestern disease is that when students actually seem proud of those backgrounds, it strikes us as strange. We give a skeptical glance at the girl who tells us Yale is interesting and educational for sure, but she’d really rather be back on her family farm in the real United States. Or the girl so proud of her Southern upbringing that she wants everyone, online and in person, to know about it. And the guy who flicks a PETA table tent off the dining hall table in disgust, snapping that whoever wrote the brochure knows nothing about how pigs are farmed in real life.

Those are moments I find truly refreshing. I can’t help feeling great admiration for those heartland Yalies who wear their pride on their sleeves, no matter what their neighbors think. I chose Yale for these rather rare times.

We can afford to learn a lot from those parts of the country that see personal integrity and not efficiency as the greatest virtue, look to the government as a last — not a first — resort for what ails them and don’t run on Dunkin Donuts. I am saddened that while Yale has made great leaps toward embracing a large international student body, we have lagged behind in embracing those parts of our own nation that challenge our academic perspective.

John Masko is a junior in Saybrook College. Contact him at john.masko@yale.edu. He will be a staff opinion blogger beginning next semester.

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