Four years ago, I left my home state of Wisconsin to attend Michigan State University, and for four years now I have puzzled over the rivalry between MSU and UM. Why is there such rancor, such vitriol, between citizens of the same great state? Why is there so much contempt between two such fine and nationally-respected public universities?
But now, after four years of careful observation, I understand. The MSU-UM rivalry is at its core a class conflict. To attend the University of Michigan is to associate oneself with upward mobility and ambition, to attend Michigan State is to associate oneself with practical skills and the common touch, and to attend the rivalry game is to view the cathartic collision of these two worldviews: white-collar vs. blue-collar, Ann Arbor vs. Lansing, Wolverine vs. Spartan.
Certainly, the rivalry’s rhetoric directly points towards the prominence of class. Michigan fans, as any Spartan will be sure to tell you, are blue-blooded snobs coasting on Daddy’s slush fund, and Michigan State fans, as any Wolverine will assure you, are drunken slobs from the backwoods boonies. These stereotypes are not necessarily true, but they often become true over the course of college. Prospective Spartans become full-blooded Spartans and prospective Wolverines become full-blooded Wolverines—often to the detriment of both parties.
This class division stems from a long line of historical tradition. Venerable UM, founded in 1817, has educated Michigan’s social and economic elite from the very beginning while the younger MSU (1855), the nation’s first land-grant college, had a much more populist mandate—the education of farmers, engineers, and schoolteachers. Every year since the rivalry has grown and the schools have become ever more cemented in their roles.
This always struck me as foolish, for both UM and MSU have much to learn from each other. It wouldn’t hurt for Wolverines to become slightly less insufferable and perhaps the Spartans could use a bit of culture and refinement. Certainly the two schools could stand to have a slightly more mature intercollegiate relationship.
To humbly submit an example, in Wisconsin we have several fine public schools—but they coexist in friendly harmony, because state cohesion is important when you live next to the wastelands of Minnesota. There is only one flagship school, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, but it combines aspects of both UM and MSU: its identity merges an elite public school with a community-minded land-grant philosophy. Construction majors learn poetry and philosophers take forestry. Moderation is, of course, the Wisconsin way.
Yet, in view of the emotional MSU-UM football game this weekend, perhaps I am exposed as a simple and ignorant Sconnie. Because, while the Wisconsin model of higher education makes far more sense, it results in far less interesting rivalry college football games. And what, in the end, is more important?