His arm raised with rallying charisma and his head draped in what appears to be a turban, John Dingell is portrayed in the pastiche of a Middle Eastern despot, reminiscent of Muqtada al-Sadr, in an illustration run in a recent issue of The New Republic. John Dingell is Ann Arbor’s delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives and a man I’ve had the pleasure of meeting several times – although I don’t recall him wearing a turban. Seeing him pictured in a nationally acclaimed political magazine was a startling reminder of how one’s hometown can permeate national or even global levels.
But striking even closer to home, Dingell’s image is a reminder that our very own University spends a great deal of time in the national spotlight. I first encountered this my freshman year when Newsweek came to campus to do a story on college students, dubbing us “Generation 9-11.” While reading quotes and looking at pictures of my friends, I realized that although this was my University, it simultaneously was a part of something far larger than myself.
Certainly, this University’s place in the national spectrum hits everyone each football season – amplified even more so this year amid our national title disappointment. Gratz and Grutter demonstrate the University’s pivotal role in the story of affirmative action, something that comes to mind as the U.S. Supreme Court now tampers with the legacy of Brown v. Board. A larger scale collides with my daily world whenever I climb the steps of the Michigan Union and see the spot where John Kennedy announced the birth of the Peace Corps, walk past the public policy school named after our 38th president or traverse anything else that the University’s press packet trumpets. Every major university is rife with its own sources of legend and lore, and Michigan’s is better than most.
However, for whatever reason, many students take this University and their position in it for granted. A recent conversation I overheard provides the perfect example: “Michigan is a much better school than the one my sister goes to, but I still wish I had gotten into Harvard.” That about sums it up. Michigan is a leader on the national stage but will always be an Ivy League backup plan. The engineer’s time at Michigan becomes a source of insecurity as he trudges the campus feeling ashamed about being an MIT reject.
But why is Michigan met with disdain? Along with the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Virginia, Michigan stands as one of the top public universities in the country and offers an education comparable to its east coast contemporaries. After all, two of our professors were on David Horowitz’s list of most dangerous academics is America – we must be doing something right.
One can’t help but feel that the University of Michigan gets snubbed because of its location. One of the most common questions I encounter now in graduate school is “What the hell am I doing in Michigan?” The number of expletives in that sentence goes up as the temperature goes down. Gloomy Michigan gets lost between sunny California and colonial New England as students funnel in from both coasts, convinced that their homes are the only real locations of American civilization.
Apparently, the ocean view comes with a confidence that the middle parts of the country are just a hazy blur of cornfield. How did New York and Los Angeles become the disappointed parents of the rest of the country?
What’s amazing is that even Midwesterners on campus share these sentiments. Whereas East Coasters resent the fact that they are in Michigan, Midwesterners resent that they are not even in Chicago. The reason N.Y. and L.A. hold such sway over American youths – beyond their enabling of hip two-letter abbreviation – is because there is so much cultural attention paid to them. They have specific footholds on our cultural imagination. Growing up, the entire country watches movies and television shows that take place in these cities.
Don’t we all dream about being that na’ve, but determined and scrappy young Midwesterner moving to the concrete jungle to take a bite out of the big apple? Write your own sitcom theme music as necessary. I can only imagine what native New Yorkers think of this imagery – maybe their dad from Iowa can answer.
The University just can’t compare to the kind of public relations and movie attention enjoyed by the Ivies. Michigan only has fleeting moments in quasi-classics like “American Pie” and “The Big Chill.” Now, these few moments are more than many other colleges can boast, but until there’s an exciting drama about Michigamua, we’re always going to wish we went to Harvard.
Sam Butler is a member of the Daily’s editorial board. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.