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Dispatches from the Ivy League

A chronicle of privilege and difference from a US centre of academic excellence, as seen through the lens of the well-appointed pool. Once a symbol of luxury in South Africa, the pool’s symbolic meaning has shifted along with changes in social makeup. At Dartmouth, the pool (much like the school) remains the domain of the elite.

Among the most luxurious features of Ivy League universities are the swimming pools. They are Olympic size, deep enough to accommodate all manner of water athleticism and the ambient temperature of Lady Anne Barnard’s bath at Kirstenbosch in February. They are tiled with the relevant college colours, dissected by muscular lane dividers and outfitted with clocks that time your stroke while commemorating the generosity of their donor.

Which brings me to another thing about the Ivies: their mania for eponymous endowment. Here is a select list of donated facilities at the main library of Dartmouth College, where I have been a visiting researcher for the last six weeks:

  • Three suites of conference rooms equipped with flatrons for remote link-up;
  • A media centre with dozens of video, DVD and microfiche-viewing stations and a wall of wide-screen Apple desktops (24/7 tutor assistance available);
  • A map centre;
  • A snack bar serving iced chai lattes and sushi.

The snack bar is heavily subsidised for Dartmouth students. After midnight, unsold baked goods are left outside the library doors where they are devoured by returning frat-party revellers.

Within a half-mile radius of the library, through grounds marked by an assortment of donated benches, courtyards and topiary gardens, is the gym. Here, endowments have paid for a dance studio, squash and tennis courts, a sauna, an indoor track so spongy it’s like treading on loofah and an on-site automatic external defibrillator, should someone go into cardiac arrest while on the premises. And, of course, a swimming pool, which includes two diving boards with Durafirm™ and Maxiflex™ equipment, a water-well, an endless pool and various fun-looking trampolines for diving practice.

I wonder about the genesis of these endowments. Is it like a wedding registry, in which the college publishes lists of desired objects (posh coffee machine/ new library wing/ Clicks placemat set/ baby-changing station), and the alumni make a selection? Or is it more like a stokvel, in which different interest groups take turns in selecting what to finance, with jockey alumni paying for sports facilities, while humanities folk cover theatre renovations and the student newspaper?

Whatever the process through which this privilege is conferred, its conferral is definitive, colossal, omnipotent, the Ur-fact of the Ivy League. In April this year the New York Times published a column entitled “No rich child left behind”. The article’s title was a play on the 2001 Act of Congress, the “No child left behind” bill that committed the United States government to increasing aid for disadvantaged school children. Its findings were damning.

A decade after the act was passed, the gap in academic achievement between rich and poor students in the United States is still widening. This is mostly because high-income families have more resources to devote to their children’s cognitive development, and because they invest heavily in early childhood education. No matter how clever or hard-working the child, schools cannot compete with the privilege of an affluent upbringing. Among some interest groups and political cultures there is fierce objection to this, with plans to tackle educational inequality regarded as the crucible of social reform. In 2012, the French minister of education was considering introducing legislation to ban homework as a means of enforcing greater equity in the formation of future citizens.

In South Africa, equity in education has long been a clarion call of the African National Congress, which is partly why education minister Angie Motshekga’s refusal to commit to minimum norms and standards for school infrastructure has been so confounding. Within the Ivy League, however, the pursuit of equality in education is a remote, even quaint, ideal. It has long been consigned to a bygone era, together with the other naïve hankerings of John Lennon’s “Imagine”.

The Ivies do not address themselves to the social inequities writ large across the United States educational system. They function like private corporations, competing fiercely with each other to package their products for a discerning group of consumers. And because their brands are so powerful, conveying elite success and intellectual stardom in a single name, much of their marketing is done by the consumers themselves. Students at Dartmouth wear a uniform – branded t-shirts, hoodies and shorts. All of these bear the name of the college, re-inscribing allegiance. Undergraduates, meant to be at their zenith of sartorial non-conformity, wear Dartmouth apparel like denim. Local shops stock gourmet jellybeans and M&Ms coded in college colours.

Outside of the library, the students always seem to be coming from, or going to, sports practice. A notice about student counselling services on a toilet stall in the gym reads: “In a demanding environment, you have to be functioning at your best.” Among the most common reasons students seek counselling are anxiety, alcohol or drug use and eating disorders. A full-time nutritionist is available to treat the latter.

After hours, the students’ drug of choice is not marijuana, but cocaine. Their allowances are generous, their study-hours long and their sights set on high-powered jobs on Wall Street and Capitol Hill. They’re nicknamed the “Catalogue Kids”, because they appear to have strolled off the pages of a JCrew advertisement – a brand that combines Hilton Weiner-style designs with Italian fabrics. In combination with their Dartmouth gear, they wear salmon chinos, polo shirts, espadrilles and loafers. Everyone’s teeth and hair have been straightened.

Inside the library, they lounge on leather couches and study on mahogany. The toilets bear a closer resemblance to the Hotel Sacher in Vienna than any loo on a South African campus. The walls are marble, and the flush, tap, foam soap and paper towel dispenser all automated.

The library is open until two am (summer vacation hours). In case your book isn’t on the shelves (and the South African history section rivals anything I’ve seen at home), it is available on inter-library loan in 48 hours. If you don’t have time to remove your page flags from a book before returning it, don’t sweat it. This service is available for the cost of $5 (or R50) per book. And if you need assistance at any time, you can chat with your subject librarian online.

The Dartmouth Wi-Fi is high speed and ubiquitous. Classes are small – 10 to 20 students.  If they get cabin fever in the little city of Hanover, they have the option of hiking on the nearby mountain owned by Dartmouth, or studying abroad on one of the college’s programmes in Rome, Paris or Barcelona.

Among undergraduate students, allegiance to the Dartmouth brand is peculiarly unironic. At a recent conference at Rhodes University, the supply of branded water bottles spurred a discussion between students and staff in which both took turns eviscerating the marketing department for this perceived waste of resources. As South African universities go, brand allegiance among Rhodes students is comparably high, but the mascot featured on t-shirts and bumper stickers is still a drunken rat, evidence that students at least refuse to take the brand too seriously. By contrast, the branding at Dartmouth is so pervasive that it is invisible. The students here are not just floating on the brand’s surface; they are motioning its waves.

Which brings me back to the swimming pools. During the 1970s, when white South Africans had among the highest living standards in the world, swimming pools became a symbol of affluence, racial privilege and exclusion. News articles about Apartheid often mentioned the prevalence of pools in white neighbourhoods as indices of luxury. The anti-Apartheid documentary Last Grave at Dimbaza, which contrasted the living conditions of blacks and whites in a searing critique of Apartheid, included shots of a swimming pool set in a suburban garden. Here, the directors were gesturing to the iconic value of the pool – a status symbol for the haves, inaccessible to the have-nots and a symbol that, through its very function, juxtaposes private ownership and the potential for public enjoyment. This is the historical legacy of the pool in South Africa.

Over the last few decades, however, it has perhaps begun to change. South Africa’s most well-known swimming pool is probably the Sea Point pavilion, regarded by many (according to the City of Cape Town) as “the most breathtaking public swimming pool in the world”. It is one of the city’s most successful and racially integrated public spaces, despite the costs of a visit for those who live beyond the affluent domain of the Atlantic seaboard. The recreational use of another South African public pool was captured by Jodi Bieber in her portraits of Soweto, images which attest to the phenomenal vitality of these spaces.

The Karl Michael and Spaulding Pools at Dartmouth College Photo: Rebecca Hodes

The swimming pool at Dartmouth has strict rules governing its use. Before getting into the water, you must shower and present your ID card to the pool monitor. Scoreboards commemorate college triumphs at swimming championships against the other Ivies, and a huge mosaic proclaims, “Positive vision equals positive action”. A grid on the lifeguard’s table represents the pool, and swimmers are required to place their ID cards in the numbered lane of their choosing. Sharing is permitted, but to maximise the benefits of your workout, it is not encouraged. DM

Rebecca Hodes is a medical historian based at the University of Cape Town.


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