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Chasing Academic Elitism: I did not "know myself"

By Jan Trembley ’75

An appeal for news from an editor, a medical student, for the class of 1975 in its first Bryn Mawr Alumnae Bulletin Class Notes column: “…two former classmates wrote a fan letter to, of all people, Lawrence Welk* and signed my name. In Mr. Welk’s reply, he wrote, ‘…it really warms my heart to know that young ladies at such a fine finishing school as Bryn Mawr College also enjoy my program. I can just picture in my mind all of you doing your lovely embroidery as you watch our show.’ So put down your embroidery hoops and write us. We’d hate to fill this column with gross anatomy.”   

When I offered to write an essay about my experience of class differences at Bryn Mawr, I thought I was going to report that they didn’t matter. Once my memories started coming back, I realized that while that wasn’t entirely true, I struggled with academic elitism, not socioeconomic status. I’ve always wanted to be smarter than I am; I brought a thirst for knowledge and a feeling of inadequacy with me to Bryn Mawr, where both flourished in a culture that rewarded intellectual superiority.

It was a strange and wonderful time. Many middle and upper middle class whites, both young and old, in the 1960s and ’70s wanted to break with social conventions and class privilege. The war in Vietnam dragged on and overshadowed everything; the conflict between those who supported it and those who opposed it felt much more intense than the current one over action in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unrest and anger about the struggle for racial equality continued, and the feminist movement grew increasingly militant. Because of or in spite of all of this, most of us were optimistic about the future. A former professor says, “It was a golden time for Bryn Mawr. Everything seemed possible.”

I was a freshman in the fall of 1971, one of the large number of public high school graduates the College had begun to admit. It was an experiment, a risk, and some faculty and alumnae said as much. Our educations had not been as rigorous, we had not traveled abroad or been exposed to culture. Our mothers and relatives were not Mawrters.

I was also an Alumnae Regional Scholar, one of a group of students admitted to the College with financial aid and then selected by alumnae from their geographic regions at special tea parties. These alumnae were proud of us, and it was clearly an honor we were expected to live up to. We ARS scholars confided in one another that we occasionally felt like Parisian orphans being taken out for fresh air.

The distinction wasn’t on our minds most of the time, though, and the tribalism of school pride was a strong psychological leveler: We heard constantly, especially from alumnae, that Bryn Mawrters were a select group. On the other hand, it was obvious that some were better than others: veils seemed to shimmer around the students writing honors theses, the summa cum laudes, and the Slaughter and European fellows invited “to join their faculty colleagues on the stage” during the graduation ceremonies. I envied them.

I wanted to have new ideas and insights, and I wanted to shine, but like most of my acquaintances, I struggled with my work, cried when I got only B grades and practically broke down over Cs. It was not a competitive atmosphere but one in which we often simply didn’t understand how to improve our work. When I would ask my professors how so-and-so “did it,” they always replied, “She works like a dog.” This may not be as cruel as it sounds, since they could have said instead, “She’s smarter than you are.” They wanted us to focus on our own goals and progress. I often thought of lines from Brave New World, a mind-washing recording played to children in their sleep: "I'm so glad I'm a Beta. Alpha children wear grey. They work much harder than we do because they're so frightfully clever." 

I had had no exposure to students who had gone to private school before coming to college. A few were haughty. My freshman dean challenged one to get to know me in order to show her “that someone from a small town in Pennsylvania could be interesting.” Most were indistinguishable from the rest of us, with the exception that private school students usually had better French accents and had studied Latin longer.  The student body wasn’t terribly diverse. We were mostly white girls from good schools, with professional parents or at least fathers, as was the case for the small number of black students. Even in its early decades, Bryn Mawr students came from more progressive families, however well-to-do, and my private school classmates did not seem part of the superficial world described in The Official Preppy Handbook (1980), a tongue-in-cheek guide to looking, acting and ultimately, being upper class.

Some of my best memories are studying late in friends’ dorm rooms with a group of their neighbors or fellow majors, drinking herbal tea and talking, and once watching a black cat give birth in someone’s closet in Rock. Students crowded the silent room; we were amazed.

It helped that material possessions were not flaunted. Although a lot of people at the time walked around in costumes (beads, fringe, vintage, etc.), we wore jeans, T-shirts and sweatshirts. Only a handful of students had cars, prized junkers.

Economically, it was a much better time. I paid for my education with my scholarship, work-study earnings, and loans. This was not a hardship. Total tuition and room and board still totaled less than $3,000 a year when I graduated, a typical fee for a liberal arts school, making it possible for so many middle class students to attend college. I didn’t resent having to work during the school year and in the summers; my job as an editorial assistant in Public Information was interesting, and I was proud of it.

Very few of my classmates were the first in their family to go to college or came from a working class background. With some exceptions -- a janitor’s daughter from Georgia who did not want to be Black, and a Hopi who transferred back to New Mexico schools and is now a lawyer and a tribal judge -- I don’t remember that they talked about feeling out of place. I never heard the kind of unkind or hostile remarks reported nowadays, which doesn’t mean they didn’t occur.

I think it must be more difficult now for first generation students, when preparation levels and cultural and income differences vary so much more. On the other hand, the College now supports learning how to get on in the world in all kinds of situations and with all kinds of people. Today’s curriculum also seems far more accessible and engaging for freshmen and sophomores. The emphasis in my time seemed to be on transmitting a body of knowledge in order to make arguments for statements about it, not so much about questioning or changing it, and interdisciplinary thinking was highly suspect. (This was not what was happening elsewhere in college curricula: requirements and reading canons were being challenged and abandoned.)

As for socioeconomic class distinctions, I believed that they could be overcome with education, access to power, and money. Wasn’t an earlier example my own mother, who had grown up poor in Nebraska during the Dust Bowl, one of nine children? She rode a mule to get to high school, was the first in her family to go to college, and excelled in math and statistics. During World War II, she was brought to Washington, D.C. before graduating by the U.S. Navy Department, where she was in charge of shipping routes and met daily with the Admirals.

What I didn’t yet understand was why she didn’t buck the pressure after the war for women to stay home and raise children instead of pursing careers, even though my parents had difficulty getting on their feet financially. She developed anxiety attacks and agoraphobia. She let our male family doctors condescend to her. Her father had beaten her as a child—one side of her body ached decades later where he had slammed her into a wall after trying to protect her mother. That must have been a factor, but I wonder if her uncharacteristic lack of assertiveness in those more socially rigid times also resulted from not having the protection and confidence of class status.

 I went on to get a Ph.D. in classics and comparative literature from Princeton. My Bryn Mawr professors urged me not to go to graduate school, saying, “You’re too creative, You’ll hate it,” "Do something with your art" instead. I didn’t hate it, but I still couldn’t always understand how to improve my written work. It was not until my third year that a sympathetic German professor said of my draft for a paper: “Your conclusion is spot on, but you argue by using analogies, and scholarly audiences won’t accept that form of reasoning.” Shouldn’t someone have told me this years before? Was I supposed to figure it out myself? I still can’t really figure it out! In the end, tenure-track teaching jobs had dried up (as we had been warned), so I got a job at a daily newspaper, drawing political cartoons, editing sports copy at night and covering local government.    

My degrees have brought me acceptance, sometimes awe, and sometimes suspicion. The quality of my education has helped me professionally -- and creatively -- and lifted me to a higher income level of the middle class. My Bryn Mawr classmates are lawyers, doctors, scientists, veterinarians, scholars, and activists who have made important contributions to society. (Interestingly, alumnae of the early 70s were the first in Bryn Mawr’s history not to marry or have children soon after graduating. ** Many of us never married at all or married late in life.) I still wish that I were smarter and take every opportunity to learn, but have come to believe that the wise person is aware of the limits of her understanding and that theoretical knowledge alone does not produce wisdom. We must constantly be on guard against beliefs about superiority or inferiority, our own or others.

* Big band leader Lawrence Welk hosted a variety show featuring conservative, “easy listening music” that aired on national television from 1955-86. The show became a symbol of lowbrow and middle class taste.

* * A College in Dispersion, Women of Bryn Mawr 1896-1975, based on a survey of 6099 alumnae conducted in 1970-71 and updated in 1975 with responses from 641 of the 916 women affiliated with classes of 1971-75.

"The most dramatic change in the record pertains to marriage and children, or rather a tendency among 1971-75 classes not to marry or to have children, at least not shortly after college. When 1966-70 alumnae were questioned in 1970-71, 53.5% had married, on the average just before the age of 22, and 70 people had one child or more. In contrast, by late 1975, fewer than 20% in 1971-75 classes have married and they have recorded a near-zero on babies: three children from all five classes.”

Jan Trembley was editor of the Bryn Mawr Alumnae Bulletin from 1989-2011.


Utitofon's picture

Thanks for sharing

Wow! Thanks for sharing your experience Jan. I do have to remind myself not to make unfair comparisons, though it is so easy to fall into that self defeating trap. One month into my program I am still struggling with feeling  overwhelmed. However, like you mentioned Bryn Mawr has provided several resources to support students like me. I am doing my best to take advantage of them.

Jan's picture

Thanks for sharing

Hi Utitofon,
Thanks for replying! Take a deep breath and try to enjoy/query everything to its fullest!

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