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Ivy Tower

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Pretentious university setting full of stuffy professors and weird traditions.

This work is a proposed Trope, Tropers can vote and offer feedback in the comments section below.
Proposed By:
naturalironist on Mar 12th 2019 at 6:29:47 PM
Last Edited By:
naturalironist on Mar 17th 2019 at 11:31:38 AM
Name Space: Main
Page Type: trope

Another draft split off of Oxbridge. Many examples there may qualify but need more context to describe the setting; help needed moving them over.

This university setting is the native habitat of "smart people", characterized by a certain pompousness and attention to learning above all else. Tradition and history are given great reverence, and everyone is entirely occupied by in highfalutin' intellectual discussions, often accompanied by a disdain for the practical. The professors are all doddering eccentics, and there's often an unusual culture of formality befitting the university's pedigree. Bizarre, ancient traditions and a Pretentious Latin Motto are a common feature. All this gives the place a sense of being stuck in the past, and most such institutions will have a history going back for centuries. A campus composed of neo-Gothic buildings covered ivy and resembling castles is often a visual shorthand for this type of culture.

Depending on the work, the Academy may be a portrayed as an Academy of Adventure, as a mundane but invigorating intellectual environment, or as a place of insufferable stuffiness and boredom. Professors are given more prominence than here than in other depictions, so this is less likely to be a School of No Studying, but Wacky Fratboy Hijinx are still possible.

The Ivy Tower is the natural home of the Insufferable Genius, Grammar Nazi, and Gentleman and a Scholar. Often the hometown of the Adventurer Archaeologist or his hated rivals. If not the main setting of a work, characters may journey there to seek The Professor to gain assistance with a problem.

This trope has its basis in Oxford and other medieval European universities. Because of Ivy League for Everyone, expect this trope to show up if the common prestigious universities are given any characterization.

Compare Smoky Gentlemen's Club, which may have a similar vibe but is for men of the world rather than self-absorbed academics. Contrast College Is High School Part 2. See also Strawman U for some other stereotypical depictions of the University.


  • In Wet Hot American Summer, a few scenes take place at the University of Maine, portrayed with a neo-Gothic campus. All the professors spend all their time drinking wine and arguing snootily, looking down on Prof. Henry. The highly decorous setting highlights the humor when Prof. Henry gets into a fistfight with his academic rival in the middle of a hallway.


  • The Cavaliers Series: As the name of the first book, Oxford Blood, suggests, the series is set at Oxford University. The books revolve around a vampire dining society based on the real life Bullingdon Club. The books give a detailed portrayal of life as an contemporary undergraduate student. All the boxes - Oxford Union, punting, rowing, black tie dinners, tutorials with grumpy dons - are quite thoroughly ticked.
  • Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency partially takes place at a fiction college in Cambridge University. One of the characters is an Absent-Minded Professor who has to undergo dull, formal dinners with colleagues and associated traditions, and who himself seems stuck in the Middle Ages. Which of course he is, since he's a Really 700 Years Old time traveler.
  • Discworld: Unseen University, a wizard academy full of stuffy deans and bizarre traditions, is heavily based on the real Oxbridge. Some of the wild traditions in the books, such as Hunting the Megapode are based off of real university traditions. The wizards tend to look down on practical applications of magic; in Interesting Times a minority of engineer-like wizards invent a teleporter much to the chagrin of the university hierups. In-Universe this is intentional, as wizards who are preoccupied with banquets and petty arguments aren't out setting the world on fire.
  • Lucky Jim: Jim works at a lower-tier English university which is nevertheless filled with stuffiness and pretension. Because Jim studies Medieval History, he spends most of his time appreciating and discussing obscure Medieval art forms, which he finds insufferable.

Live-Action TV

  • The fictional Bailie College at Oxford made occasional appearances on Yes, Minister, being Sir Humphrey's alma mater, to which he retains connections. Bernard is noted as another Oxford alumnus, having read Classics (his pedantry regarding grammar and Latin are a running joke). Both tease Hacker for having attended the London School of Economics because of its real-world curriculum and lack of pretentiousness. These personality traits of the alumns speak to the culture of the school.

Real Life

  • Truth in Television to some extent for Oxford and Cambridge, some of the most highly pedigreed universities in the world. Both date back to the 13th century, and for a long time emphasized the classics over practical learning. They're also unusual for being some of the only places where academic dress is regularly worn and periodic black tie dinners are a requirement, among other traditions.
  • The University of Chicago has this reputation as well. It's one of the only major American universities that still offers a Great Books program, and has a reputation for theoretical intellectualism underlined by university t-shirts with slogans such as "That's all well and good in practice, but how does it work in theory?". It also has several buildings that are replicas from Oxford's campus.

Feedback: 15 replies

Mar 12th 2019 at 9:46:53 PM

I thought it's called "Ivory Tower"?

Mar 12th 2019 at 10:19:54 PM

It's a pun, combining Ivory Tower with Ivy League.

Mar 12th 2019 at 10:47:11 PM

Addendum to the Discworld example: In Universe, this is intentional, because wizards who are comfortably occupied with sinecures and lavish banquets are wizards who aren't ruining the landscape with magical warfare or summoning up Eldritch Abominations.

Mar 13th 2019 at 1:04:24 AM

Hatted just for the clever pun.

Mar 13th 2019 at 4:54:43 AM

I like this. I will hat this draft once it has more examples. Otherwise it's very solid.

Mar 13th 2019 at 9:02:10 AM

Nice. Hatted.

Minor typo, first paragraph: highfalutin'.

Mar 14th 2019 at 10:57:00 AM

My objection to the draft is that it doesn't give a solid reason why any post-secondary centre for education would be an invalid example.

The first paragraph says "a university setting modeled after great medieval European Universities, with an impressive pedigree and a boatload of eccentricities." What are the traits of a medieval European University? Age, pride, and Narrative Filigree? None of the current examples describe "crumbling stone and ivy", "intellectual discussions" (unless snobbery is intellectual, see later), reverence for history (would be shown with Appeal To Tradition), "bizarre [...] traditions" (Discworld is the exception here), or the Pretentious Latin Motto (several have one, but it isn't in the example text).

There is some mention of intellectual snobbery and boorishness in most of the examples, and I briefly mentioned in the TRS thread that Stuffy Academia sounds like a good trope, but the examples and the description of this draft do not currently agree on what context is. You've got an idea in your head, but you aren't conveying what that idea is to those of us who don't know it. (I've only attended community colleges in America Mid-Atlantic coast, so maybe I don't have the reference needed.)

Mar 14th 2019 at 12:13:51 PM

Most of the examples do seem to list a few of those traditions, and it's not the fact that intellectual discussions are had on campus, but that they're had by everyone constantly, as opposed to the more laidback, frat party atmosphere of many a stereotypical movie university/college, or the uber-modern, fast-moving world of a school that focuses more on technology and the sciences. Snobbery and elitism are definitely a component here, I don't think that's unfair to say — being able to say "I went to Yale/Harvard/Cambridge" is meant to be a feather in one's cap. I mean, I didn't go to Oxford or Ivy League either, but I've seen this in so many works of fiction that it seems pretty instantly recognizable. The fact that other universities have Latin mottoes (most do), weird traditions, or ivy on the walls doesn't mean this trope doesn't exist — they don't have as much. They're just not old enough, or maybe they just don't put the past on a pedestal the same way. That's fine, there are other tropes for that.

Stuffy Academia could be a trope and would definitely overlap with this one, but I'd still argue that these trappings put together in this way are a distinct enough trope on their own.

Mar 14th 2019 at 12:24:16 PM

There are no traditions mentioned in In Wet Hot American Summer, The Cavaliers Series, Lucky Jim, or Yes Minister.

Whereas Dirk Gentlys Holistic Detective Agency says "traditions are here" and Discworld actually links a fictional tradition to an Oxbridge tradition.

"These trappings" have not been clearly defined here, just assumed. If there's a trope, it shouldn't be "examples of post-secondary education in fiction". Well, it could, but the description needs to reflect that definition.

Mar 14th 2019 at 12:44:47 PM

Traditions are not the only qualification. Those other examples mention the snootiness and pretension of the clubs and dinners, the Old World architecture and decor. Yes Minister and Dirk Gently feature scenes actually set at Oxford. And the trappings are mentioned in the first paragraph. You even listed them in your last post, so I'm not quite sure why you're saying they're not there. Your objection seems more like you don't agree that they're sufficient in themselves, but you also admit that might just be because you're not personally familiar with the trope. In which case that level of detail seems more like it would be the job of a Useful Notes page, or just The Other Wiki.

Mar 14th 2019 at 7:31:41 PM

I revamped the description, hope this helps.

Mar 14th 2019 at 10:25:18 PM

  • Most of That Hideous Strength is set at the fictional Edgestow University, which like Oxford/Cambridge is a medieval university made up of several colleges. Much of the conflict comes from some of the fellows at Bracton College, where much of the action takes place, wanting to modernize and chop down an ancient forest in the name of scientific research. Of course, this is partly a case of Write What You Know, as CS Lewis himself was an Oxbridge don. note 

Mar 16th 2019 at 6:32:40 AM

Your objection seems more like you don't agree that they're sufficient in themselves, but you also admit that might just be because you're not personally familiar with the trope.
No, my objection is that the context for examples does not match the description. I'm not personally familiar with the idea behind the draft, so I cannot determine what is context independently. Despite the description revision, the examples are unchanged. I can provide many examples of fictional schools that also fail to provide context. Since I don't know what the trope is supposed to be, every college appears to be an example.

Mar 16th 2019 at 8:10:54 AM

Not all colleges have all these traits, and not necessarily in such abundance. Maybe it would help if you gave some of your examples? You could also read our Useful Notes pages on these schools.

The description lists several traits, and the examples have some or all of those traits, to a greater or lesser degree. The trope is just schools in fiction that are based on, or actually are, Oxbridge, the Ivy League schools, and other, similar environments. They don't actually have to be Oxford, Cambridge, or the Big Eight, or even as big or prestigious. You could potentially find this kind of environment at in any school, but for the most part, the air of age, pretension, and intellectualism is less pronounced elsewhere.

Mar 17th 2019 at 10:52:42 AM

^^^ Could I get a little more context? Is there a conflict between the people who want to chop down the forest, and people who want to preserve it due to its history or relation to the university's past?

Oxford is probably the Real Life Trope Codifier for this. But examples shouldn't just be "this work takes place at Oxford", they should explain how it's portrayed.

@crazysamartian could you post some of your examples, or explain what context you want from the current ones? In my opinion the examples (except for the Ivy League one, which I admittedly don't know much about) do display how the university has a culture involving pedantry, tradition, or "classiness".

As far as "this could be any college" in principle, any type of university could be given this portrayal in fiction, and most universities probably have at least subcultures that fit this stereotype. But not every portrait of college will fit this. Here's an example of the typical student's day in different college tropes (this doesn't literally have to happen, but the setting should be a place where this could plausibly happen):

Ivy Tower: The characters go to class, where their professor is lecturing about Plato. The lecture gets derailed by an argument about some minor translation notes, which goes on until dinner. The character then put on suits and go to a formal banquet with their professors. After dinner they listen to chamber music.

College Is High School Part 2: The characters go to class with all their high school friends, where their teacher reminds them to do their homework just before the bell goes off. They then hang out at the mall for a few hours, and then return to school for a dance that's being held in the gym.

Berserkeley (from Strawman U): Class is cancelled due to a protest that takes over the school. The characters spend the evening smoking pot and playing guitar.

St. Jim Jonestown Academy (from Strawman U): Class is cancelled due to a witch burning. The characters spend the evening praying.

Sokal Institute of Rock-Hard Sciences and Technology: The characters spend the day building a robot. They spend the evening either studying or playing an MMORPG.

Party State U (not a trope currently but another college stereotype): The characters spend the morning getting drunk, then go to a football game. They spend the evening doing a Panty Raid or other Wacky Fratboy Hijinx.