Reinstatement of sororities at Swarthmore College sparks controversy

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As a group of women readies to open a sorority to Swarthmore for the first time in 80 years, some students are calling for a schoolwide referendum, arguing that a sorority violates the college's Quaker values and emphasis on learning.

Applicant sues over law school's alleged failure to account for grade inflation in admissions

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Applicant alleges that Baylor University's law school discriminated against him by not accounting for grade inflation in admissions.

Arkansas-Fort Smith transgender student wins access to women's restrooms

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Jennifer Braly, a transgendered student who is a junior at U. of Arkansas-Fort Smith, is now allowed to use female restrooms. Advocates say colleges have been too slow to accommodate such students.

Notre Dame of Maryland hires a male president, a rare move for a women's college

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Notre Dame of Maryland, a women's college, makes a surprising choice for its next president. (Hint: Not a woman.)

University Accused of Housing Bias

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Nebraska-Kearney faces federal discrimination charges -- which it disputes -- after barring student from bringing therapy dog with her to live in university-owned apartment.

Relationship Problems

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Years after colleges banned or discouraged professor-student romance, a murder in Idaho and other recent incidents show that these affairs continue.

Why Disability Studies Matters

You know there is something wrong when 100 of the major film critics in the United States say that Clint Eastwood's film Million Dollar Baby is a great work and every disability scholar and activist rails against the movie. The film continues to garner praise and awards -- a Director's Guild Award for Eastwood, seven Academy Award nominations, as well as Best Actress and Director Golden Globes -- while in Chicago and Berkeley people using wheel chairs, service dogs, and red-tipped canes organized protests at which they held up signs that read "Disability Is Not a Death Sentence" and "Not Dead Yet."

For those who do not know yet,  (Warning: Plot spoiler just ahead) Eastwood's film tells the story of a poor but feisty young woman, Maggie(Hillary Swank), who wants Frankie (Clint Eastwood), to train her to be a boxer. Initially he refuses, but then when he gives in, she becomes an unbeatable opponent in the ring -- until she breaks her neck and becomes a quadriplegic. At that point, the film throws a left hook and switches from a Rocky-themed plot to a disability tragedy. When Maggie loses a leg to bedsores, she gives up her wish to live and begs to be euthanized by Frankie.  And after a little soul searching, he agrees.

Many people with disabilities, including the National Spinal Cord Injury Association, a national advocacy group with 13,000 members, see the film as one that uncritically advocates euthanasia for quadriplegics. There are no scenes in which anyone at the hospital tries to deal with Maggie's depression or offers her counseling or at the least an anti-depressant. And the feisty girl who would stop at nothing to fight in the ring, who tells her greedy, hick family to bugger off, strangely changes character and becomes someone who gives up her ghost rather quickly -- even refusing Frankie's offer of sending her to college (his one passing attempt to  alleviate her despair).

What many critics and much of the public doesn't know is that Eastwood isn't just any impartial artist in the area of disability. In fact, he has testified before the House Judiciary Committee against the provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Eastwood is the owner of the Mission Ranch Inn in Carmel, Calif. A disabled patron had sued under the ADA claiming that the hotel restrooms were inaccessible and the only accessible guest room was more than double the price of other rooms in the hotel. Eastwood was required to compensate the victim for some of these violations, although the major claims in the case were dismissed. Angered by the suit, Eastwood went to Congress to lobby for a bill that would have substantially weakened the ADA by requiring a 90-day notification of violations.  At that time, Eastwood said, in a Dirty Harry mode, that the ADA amounted to "a form of extortion."

Here's where disability studies comes in. If this film were obviously anti-gay, or anti-women, or anti-abortion, the university community would know what to do. That community has been well taught in the areas of race, gender, sexual orientation, and women's rights. Most academics would respect the rights of filmmakers to make any film they want, that is they would protect freedom of speech and creativity. But they would most certainly speak out against films, novels, plays or any artwork that demeaned people of color, gay people, or any oppressed group. Yet the average university student or faculty member still does not have even the most rudimentary understanding of disability as an identity category. In that sense, disability is where race or gender was in the 1950's or earlier.

In those days, a good liberal could be counted on to say the following: "I feel sorry for X group." "I have one friend who is X, and I can tell you those people are good, solid citizens." And in the privacy of his or her own home  might say, "Thank God I am not X" and of course "I wouldn't want my daughter to marry X." And then there was the awkwardness of meeting, talking, interacting.  That is the real "tell." As many white people were (and still are) uncomfortable conversing with people of color -- or do so with the constant thought in their mind that the person with whom they are speaking is a "black" or a "Hispanic" or an "Asian" being.

In that sense, most so-called "normal" people do not feel comfortable talking with a person using a wheelchair, a quadriplegic, a Deaf person, a blind person, a person with mental retardation or a person who has been treated for serious mental problems, someone who has cerebral palsy, who is spastic, and so on. That level of comfort one has with normals just isn't there. There will be the hesitancy about making eye contact, the desire to look with the simultaneous avoidance of looking. That behavior alone should tell anyone that the relations between people with disabilities and nondisabled is a problematic and fraught one. Indeed, for most people, it is a relationship based on ignorance and liberal notions of sympathy and pity. In other words, to put the matter bluntly, it is the relation between an oppressor group and an oppressed group.

Of course, most well meaning academics don't want to think of themselves as oppressors.  And in their hearts they feel they are not. Who could, after all, be an oppressor to a person using a wheel chair. Yet any wheel chair user will tell you of their routine, daily experiences. Any blind or deaf person has stories to recount.  Any person with cerebral palsy can regale you with hundreds of incidents in which non-disabled people insult by their awkwardness, hurt by their condescension or worse by their shunning of disabled people.

The point to make is that when this kind of a relationship exists, it cannot be solved by individual resolve.  If you resolve to be "nice" to someone with a disability, you will still find yourself in an awkward situation. That is because, the situation is not a personal one; it is a political one. You can't solve the class issue by being nice to poor people; and you can't solve the race issue by being friendly to people of color. What has to happen is a more radical thing -- the general education of the entire public through structural change.

This is where disability studies is imperative. It is crucial that students in elementary and secondary school, as well as students in the university, grow up in close contact with people with all kinds of disabilities. It is crucial that disability studies be included in the curricula of schools so that when Rosa Parks and the civil rights movement are studied, when films on Stonewall are screened, Chicano authors are read -- that disability history and culture be included as well from the accomplishments of Vietnam Vets and Ron Kovic to the Berkeley movement led by disability activist Ed Roberts to the Deaf President Now movement at Gallaudet University. The drafting of the ADA should be studied the way that the drafting of the Declaration of Independence is studied. Students should be able to read the work of Nancy Mairs or Andre Dubus, to know about the disabilities of artists and writers like James Joyce, Harriet Martineau, and William DeKooning, as well as the more obvious Beethoven or Ray Charles.

Disability studies has the potential to make people see that the world has been designed to exclude many people with disabilities from the wheel chair user to the person with cognitive or affective disorders.  People need to know the way that poverty is interwoven with disability so that even now more than 60 per cent of people with disabilities in the US are unemployed, and throughout the world two-thirds of the disabled live in poverty.  

The history of oppression of disabled people is unknown to most people, and so they see disability as an individual tragedy, worthy of being turned into a movie, and not as the political oppression and the struggle to fight that oppression, which makes for complex movies and even more difficult legal, social, and political battles.  It's a lot easier to make a movie in which we weep for the personal defeat of a person who loses a leg or two, or cry with joy for the triumph of an individual with disabilities, than it is to change the whole way we as a society envision, think about, and deal with people who are disabled.

That's why so many people are angry about the Eastwood film. And that's why well-meaning people like New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd turn around and say: What's all the fuss? This is just one artist's view of a situation: "The purpose of art is not always to send messages. More often, it's just to tell a story, move people and provoke ideas. Eastwood's critics don't even understand what art is. Politics -- not art -- is about finding consensus with the majority of the audience. Art is not about avoiding controversy or ensuring that everyone leaves feeling morally uplifted." That's true, but Dowd also begs the question. The issue isn't that Eastwood is just speaking his mind.  It's that he's speaking the mind of a country that is largely ignorant of the issues and politics around disability.

It isn't surprising that the 19th century produced a raft of books in which blacks, Jews and Semitic people, southern Europeans, Asians, and others were seen as untrustworthy degenerates. Great and mediocre artists were just expressing their opinions, and the opinions of their audiences. When Dickens wrote Oliver Twist, Fagin was just a popular image of a Jew.  No one is saying that those books should be burned now -- but I think it is fair to say that most people, including Maureen Dowd, would condemn those inaccurate and self-serving representations of people who were seen as "others" to the Europeans and Americans who wrote and read those books.

In our own time, we always wonder how it was that authors like Charles Dickens, Daniel Defoe, or even Sigmund Freud could get issues like race or gender so wrong. How was it that people in the past were so oblivious to the issues that now seem obvious to us? Will people look back to the beginning of the 21st century and wonder how writers like Frank Rich in The New York Times could have been so prejudiced against people with disabilities, even when they openly protested the biases and errors of this film, that he completely ruled out the possibility that Million Dollar Baby could even be problematic for people with disabilities? Will those people be astounded at the routine use of the pejorative sense of commonly used phrases like "turn a deaf ear" or "a blind eye" or references to "lame" notions or "crippled" economies? Of course, people in the past had no problem speaking of "jewing" someone down or using the "N-word" routinely to identify an African-American, so perhaps these usages are just lingua franca for us. 

Disability studies matters because it points out the obvious, the common, the things no one notices because most of those "no ones" see themselves a living in the mirage of being normal.

So that's where we are in regard to disability -- somewhere between the 19th century and the 1950's.  It is great that we have the Americans with Disabilities Act on the books, but that act is under attack, even by the same people who are making the movies that suggest the execution of bedridden people who are mentally sound. It is only when the average person says "disability studies" in the same way he or she says, and knows, African-American studies or feminist studies, only when there is a disability studies program in every university, along with courses in American Sign Language side by side with French and Spanish, only when every student knows the name of Gallaudet or Laurent Clerc or Ed Roberts the way they know the names of Susan B. Anthony  or Martin Luther King, only when film critics "get" the issues expressed by people with disabilities can we say that disability studies indeed finally mattered very much.


Lennard J. Davis
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Lennard J. Davis, a professor of English and disability studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is the author of Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness and the Body and editor of The Disability Studies Reader.

Sports: What Women Want?

Two weeks ago, the referee in an ongoing contest between girls and boys made the game much more fair. But the U.S. Department of Education’s new guidelines for Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which requires colleges to offer gender equity in intercollegiate athletics, has met with nothing but jeers from fans of the old rules.

At least on paper, the guidelines for complying with the student participation element of Title IX are pretty clear. Universities need to meet one of three prongs to be in compliance: They must either (1) ensure women are represented in athletics in numbers proportionate to their presence in the student body; (2) demonstrate continued efforts to expand athletic opportunities for the underrepresented sex; or (3) show they are fully accommodating women’s athletic interests.

The third prong is at the center of the current debate. How does a school show it is providing intercollegiate athletic opportunity on par with women’s interest?

The answer, one would think, is obvious: You ask them. In practice, though, it has been far from that simple. Guidance from the Department of Education over the years has been unclear, and colleges have faced a constant threat of litigation for falling short of anything less than "proportionality."

With its new guidance, the Department of Education is finally trying to let schools to use the common sense solution, enabling them to comply with Title IX by e-mailing a survey to all students asking them about their interest in participating in intercollegiate athletics, and judging schools by how closely what they offer matches what women want. It makes sense. So what’s the problem?

Like a home crowd whose team just had a touchdown called back, Title IX’s proponents pounced on the department’s new rules. In an Inside Higher Ed commentary last week, for instance, Nancy Hogshead-Makar, an Olympic gold-medal swimmer and an assistant professor at Florida Coastal School of Law, and Donna Lopiano, executive director of the Women’s Sports Foundation, ripped into the new guidance, saying the department is “thumbing its nose at the law and the female athletes it is charged with protecting.”

Of course, home crowds are typically biased -- they want their team to win, after all -- so it’s little surprise that Title IX’s fans are raising questionable objections to the new guidance. Among the weakest, but most important, is the assertion that surveys can’t gauge women’s interest in athletics relative to men because, according to Hogshead-Makar and Lopiano, "culturally, men are simply more likely than women to profess interest in a sport ... women are less likely to profess an interest in sports, even if they are interested!"

Apparently, we’re supposed to give activists like Hogshead-Makar and Lopiano the policies they demand because they say women want to play sports at the same rate as men, but just won’t admit it. Were such logic applied on the playing field rather than in the policy world, it would be like awarding a team points for invisible shots they say only they can see go in the goal.

But let’s suppose women really are unwilling to state their true interest in athletics. Let’s believe Hogshead-Makar and Lopiano when they write that “professing interest in a sport does not predict behavior...." If that’s true, we should find that while lower percentages of women than men profess an interest in putting on their cleats, when it actually comes time to play, women are just as likely to lace ‘em up.

It turns out that contrary to what Title IX activists tell us, what women say does indeed translate into what they do. For instance, according to the Higher Education Research Institute’s report "The American Freshman: National Norms for Fall 2004," between 2.7 and 5 percent of men (depending on the type of college in which they were enrolled) participated in no exercise or sports in a typical week of their senior year in high school.

In contrast, between 4.7 and 16.1 percent of women participated in no sports or exercise.On the high end, between 11.6 and 17 percent of men reported having spent more than 20 hours participating in exercise or sports as high schools seniors, while only between 5.5 and 7.6 percent of females spent that much time.

The findings of "The American Freshman" are corroborated in Taking Sex Differences Seriously, by the University of Virginia’s Steven Rhoads. Rhoads reports that despite the fact that anyone who wants to can play on college intramural teams, typically three to four times more men participate than women.

Surprisingly, the “women want to play as much as men, they just won’t say it” argument might not be the weakest objection to surveys. In a recent Inside Higher Ed article, Neena Chaudhry, senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center, argued that sending e-mail surveys to students, in which a non-response indicates no interest in sports, is unfair because "a lot of those e-mails won’t even be opened."

Apparently, the women who are supposedly dying to play sports aren’t even sufficiently motivated to keep an eye out for an interest survey, or to open it when it comes. What coach would even want players with so little enthusiasm for their sport on their team?

Perhaps the one argument with which Title IX defenders score a legitimate point is that a survey will fail to capture the athletic interest of incoming students. Hogshead-Makar and Lopiano argue, for instance, that colleges need to examine the interests not only of current students, but of prospective students, who are often recruited by schools based on their athletic abilities.

It’s a decent argument, but it’s ultimately a losing proposition for Title IX supporters. Because women’s interest in athletics really isn’t proportionate to that of men, sooner or later women’s athletic slots might be offered, but no one will be there to fill them. It's one of the reasons colleges have been forced to cut men’s sports, rather than increase women’s sports, to achieve proportionality.

Unfortunately, as long as government is involved, college sports will continue to revolve around political, rather than athletic, contests, and only the most politically skilled will win. Until now, that’s been supporters of Title IX, who have succeeded in persuading policymakers to require that colleges accommodate a demand for women’s athletics opportunities that can’t even be shown to exist. It’s a game Title IX supporters have liked because the referee -- the government -- has usually been on their side.

But real fairness requires a neutral referee, which political solutions simply can’t provide. Take the government out of the game, though, and colleges and students -- not politicians -- will decide the winner. In other words, abolish Title IX, and let supply and demand take over the referee job.

Importantly, in such a system women will almost always control the ball. They can choose the schools that offer what they want -- athletic opportunities, artistic outlets, good academics, or anything else -- and can run past those that don’t.

Schools that discriminate will be penalized not by the government, but by prospective students who choose to enroll in competing institutions. It’s a competition that will be stacked against sexist institutions: According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 56 percent of college students are women, and their majority status has been growing. Women are a powerful market force.

Unless they really are as incapable of acting on their desires as supporters of the status quo seem to suggest, women will get what they want out of their colleges. But if they continue to cede power to special interests and government, while some women will still win, most everyone else will lose.

Neal McCluskey
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Neal McCluskey is an education policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom.

The Chosen Few

Jerome Karabel's The Chosen is the big meta-academic book of the season -- a scholarly epic reconstructing "the hidden history of admission and exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton," as the subtitle puts it. Karabel, who is a professor of sociology at the University of California at Berkeley, has fished documents out of the archive with the muckraking zeal worthy of an investigative journalist. And his book, published this month by Houghton Mifflin, is written in far brisker narrative prose than you might expect from somebody working in either sociology or education. That's not meant as a dis to those worthy fields. But in either, the emphasis on calibrating one's method does tend to make storytelling an afterthought.

For Karabel really does have a story to tell. The Chosen shows how the gentlemanly anti-Semitism of the early 20th century precipitated a deep shift in how the country's three most prestigious universities went about the self-appointed task of selecting and grooming an elite.

It is (every aspect of it, really) a touchy subject. The very title of the book is a kind of sucker-punch. It is an old anti-Jewish slur, of course. It's an allusion to Jehovah's selection of the Jews as the Chosen People, of course. It's also a term sometimes used, with a sarcastic tone, as an ethnic slur. But Karabel turns it back against the WASP establishment itself -- in ways too subtle, and certainly too well-researched, to be considered merely polemical. (I'm going to highlight some of the more rancor-inspiring implications below, but that is due to my lack of Professor Karabel's good manners.)

The element of exposé pretty much guarantees the book a readership among people fascinated or wounded by the American status system. Which is potentially, of course, a very large readership indeed. But "The Chosen" is also interesting as an example of sociology being done in almost classical vein. It is a study of what, almost a century ago, Vilfredo Pareto called "the circulation of elites" -- the process through which "the governing elite is always in a state of slow and continuous transformation ... never being today what it was yesterday."

In broad outline, the story goes something like this. Once upon a time, there were three old and distinguished universities on the east coast of the United States. The Big Three were each somewhat distinctive in character, but also prone to keeping an eye on one another's doings.

Harvard was the school with the most distinguished scholars on its faculty -- and it was also the scene of President Charles Eliot's daring experiment in letting undergraduates pick most of their courses as "electives." There were plenty of the "stupid young sons of the rich" on campus (as one member of the Board of Overseers put it in 1904), but the student body was also relatively diverse. At the other extreme, Princeton was the country club that F. Scott Fitzgerald later described in This Side of Paradise. (When asked how many students there were on campus, a Princeton administrator famously replied, "About 10 percent.")

Finally, there was Yale, which had crafted its institutional identity as an alternative to the regional provincialism of Harvard, or Princeton's warm bath of snobbery. It was "the one place where money makes no difference ... where you stand for what you are," in the words of the then-beloved college novel Dink Stover, about a clean-cut and charismatic Yalie.

But by World War One, something was menacing these idyllic institutions: Namely, immigration in general and "the Hebrew invasion" in particular. A meeting of New England deans in the spring of 1918 took this on directly. A large and growing percentage of incoming students were the bright and driven children of Eastern European Jewish immigrants. This was particularly true at Harvard, where almost a fifth of the freshman class that year was Jewish. A few years later, the figure would reach 13 percent at Yale -- and even at Princeton, the number of Jewish students had doubled its prewar level.

At the same time, the national discussion over immigration was being shaped by three prominent advocates of "scientific" racism who worried about the decline of America's Nordic stock. They were Madison Grant (Yale 1887), Henry Fairfield Osborne (Princeton 1877), and Lothrop Stoddard (Harvard 1905).

There was, in short, an air of crisis at the Big Three. Even the less robustly bigoted administrators worried about (as one Harvard official put it) "the disinclination, whether justified or not, on the part of non-Jewish students to be thrown into contact with so large a proportion of Jewish undergraduates."

Such, then, was the catalyst for the emergence, at each university, of an intricate and slightly preposterous set of formulae governing the admissions process. Academic performance (the strong point of the Jewish applicants) would be a factor -- but one strictly subordinated to a systematic effort to weigh "character."

That was an elusive quality, of course. But administrators knew when they saw it. Karabel describes the "typology" that Harvard used to make an initial characterization of applicants. The code system included the Boondocker ("unsophisticated rural background"), the Taconic ("culturally depressed background," "low income"), and the Krunch ("main strength is athletic," "prospective varsity athlete"). One student at Yale was selected over an applicant with a stronger record and higher exam scores because, as an administrator put it, "we just thought he was more of a guy."

Now, there is a case to be made for a certain degree of flexibility in admissions criteria. If anything, given our reflex-like tendency to see diversity as such as an intrinsic good, it seems counterintuitive to suggest otherwise. There might be some benefit to the devil's-advocate exercise of trying to imagine the case for strictly academic standards.

But Karabel's meticulous and exhaustive record of how the admissions process changed is not presented as an argument for that sort of meritocracy. First of all, it never prevailed to begin with.

A certain gentlemanly disdain for mere study was always part of the Big Three ethos. Nor had there ever been any risk that the dim sons of wealthy alumni would go without the benefits of a prestigious education.

What the convoluted new admissions algorithms did, rather, was permit the institutions to exercise a greater -- but also a more deftly concealed -- authority over the composition of the student body.

"The cornerstones of the new system were discretion and opacity," writes Karabel; "discretion so that gatekeepers would be free to do what they wished and opacity so that how they used their discretion would not be subject to public scrutiny.... Once this capacity to adapt was established, a new admissions regime was in place that was governed by what might be called the 'iron law of admissions': a university will retain a particular admissions policy only so long as it produces outcomes that correspond to perceived institutional interests."

That arrangement allowed for adaptation to social change -- not just by restricting applicants of one minority status in the 1920s, but by incorporating underrepresented students of other backgrounds later. But Karabel's analysis suggests that this had less to do with administratorsbeing "forward-looking and driven by high ideals" than it might appear.

"The Big Three," he writes, "were more often deeply conservative and surprisingly insecure about their status in the higher education pecking order.... Change, when it did come, almost always derived from one of two sources: the continuation of existing policies was believed to pose a threat either to vital institutional interests (above all, maintaining their competitive positions) or to the preservation of the social order of which they were an integral -- and privileged -- part."

Late in the book, Karabel quotes a blistering comment by the American Marxist economist Paul Sweezy (Exeter '27, Harvard '31, Harvard Ph.D. '37) who denounced C. Wright Mills for failing to grasp "the role of the preparatory schools and colleges as recruiters for the ruling class, sucking upwards the ablest elements of the lower classes." Universities such as the Big Three thus performed a double service to the order by "infusing new brains into the ruling class and weakening the potential leadership of the working class."

Undoubtedly so, once upon a time -- but today, perhaps, not so much. The neglect of their duties by the Big Three bourgeoisie is pretty clear from the statistics.

"By 2000," writes Karabel, "the cost of a year at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton had reached the staggering sum of more than $35,000 -- an amount that well under 10 percent of American families could afford....Yet at all three institutions, a majority of students were able to pay their expenses without financial assistance -- compelling testimony that, more than thirty years after the introduction of need-blind admissions, the Big Three continued to draw most of their students from the most affluent members of society." The number of students at the Big Three coming from families in the bottom half of the national income distribution averages out to about 10 percent.

All of which is (as the revolutionary orators used to say) no accident. It is in keeping with Karabel's analysis that the Big Three make only as many adjustments to their admissions criteria as they must to keep the status quo ante on track. Last year, in a speech at the American Council on Education, Harvard's president, Larry Summers, called for preferences for the economically disadvantaged. But in the absence of any strong political or social movement from below -- an active, noisy menace to business as usual -- it's hard to imagine an institutionalized preference for admitting students from working families into the Big Three. (This would have to include vigorous and fairly expensive campaigns of recruitment and retention.)

As Walter Benn Michaels writes in the latest issue of N+1 magazine, any discussion of class and elite education now is an exercise in the limits of the neoliberal imagination. (His essay was excerpted last weekend in the Ideas section of The Boston Globe.

"Where the old liberalism was interested in mitigating the inequalities produced by the free market," writes Michaels, " neoliberalism -- with its complete faith in the beneficence of the free market -- is interested instead in justifying them. And our schools have a crucial role to play in this. They have become our primary mechanism for convincing ourselves that poor people deserve their poverty, or, to put the point the other way around, they have become our primary mechanism for convincing rich people that we deserve our wealth."

How does this work? Well, it's no secret that going to the Big Three pays off. If, in theory, the door is open to anyone smart and energetic, then everything is fair, right? That's equality of opportunity. And if students at the Big Three then turn out to be drawn mainly from families earning more than $100,000 per year....

Well, life is unfair. But the system isn't.

"But the justification will only work," writes Michaels, if "there really are significant class differences at Harvard. If there really aren't -- if it's your wealth (or your family's wealth) that makes it possible for you to go to an elite school in the first place -- then, of course, the real source
of your success is not the fact that you went to an elite school but the fact that your parents were rich enough to give you the kind of preparation that got you admitted to the elite school. The function of the (very few) poor people at Harvard is to reassure the (very many) rich people at Harvard that you can't just buy your way into Harvard."

Scott McLemee
Author's email: 

Speaking the Heritage

Up front: I am a Hispanic woman. I speak Spanish. And English. And other languages. I am a professor in a university in the Southwest of the United States, near what some of my ethnic group have called la frontera. My specialty has to do with all the languages I speak, and their literatures, and some of the national and regional cultures in places where these languages are spoken. More than this, I cannot reveal, lest my position at my institution be put in jeopardy; I have no tenure, but a houseful of young children who absolutely depend on my salary to live. Recent events in my university have taught me a few things about being a Hispanic woman, and on how, even nowadays, when much has been said about the power of las mujeres, when the chips are down, a woman's head is the first to roll, especially if she challenges conventional wisdom. I don’t want mine to roll more than it has already rolled.

But let’s go back to where it all began: the classroom. When I first arrived at this university, about five years ago, nothing delighted me more than to see the different forms of Spanish many of my students used. They are very inventive with the syntax, the grammar, and their vocabulary contains words that can be traced to Nahuatl and other indigenous languages. As a person with interests in sociolinguistics, my first semesters here made me feel like a child in a toy store. My students felt my interest, and would come to my office to tell me words that they used in their homes, and many started telling me stories about their families.

What I learned -- and realized I should have known all along -- is that the families of the great majority of my Hispanic students did not come to the United States; rather, the United States came to them. They have been here long before this region ceased to be part of Mexico. In their homes, alongside their abuelitos (grandparents), they have the constant presence of Spanish. With their abuelitos, they learn the taste of the tamales de Navidad, as well the stories of how they were punished for speaking Spanish when they were school children. Theirs are stories of pain, of courage, and of endurance.

For my students who are what has been called Heritage speakers of Spanish -- those whose home language is Spanish, and speak it with varying degrees of proficiency -- their relationship with the language is quite different from the one the non-Heritage speakers and the native speakers have. In these years I have worked close to la frontera, I have come to understand that, for many of the heritage speakers, Spanish is much more than just a language: it is a source of pain, no matter how well or how poorly they speak it. Some have come to tell me how they were ridiculed in elementary school for now knowing how to speak "proper" English. Others told me of other times when the newcomers from Mexico or other Spanish-speaking countries make fun of their Spanish and tell them that they do not speak any Spanish, even in the university!

This situation occurs also with the staff in the institution, many of whom practice a delightful linguistic ballet of code-switching, and whose language is extremely inventive and colorful. When I speak to them in Spanish, they tend to become very reverent, and apologize profoundly for not speaking "proper" Spanish, even though I always tell them that they speak a quite proper Spanish, and it does not matter whether they conjugate their verbs slightly different from the way I do. If they and I had the time, I would like to sit with them over coffee every day, so that I can learn their language, and share mine with them.

But it is not to be: they are busy, and I am busy. We meet in the corridors, or when I have to discuss bureaucratic matters, something we do exclusively in English. Even though I have started a Spanish-speaking group that gets together for lunch twice a month, only two staff persons have been able to join the group on a regular basis. All the others are faculty, and most of them come from Spanish-speaking countries, so my desire to continue my dialogue and apprenticeship with the Heritage speakers has not progressed much.

That is not to say that I have not had the opportunity to witness the shock from the two sides of the divide. A particularly illuminating case happened in an upper division course, when, during a discussion of a text, a group of Mexican students tried to humiliate the Mexican Americans every time they committed a "mistake." I had to intervene and spend a whole class period going over the different kinds of Spanish there are, and trying to alert my young Spanish speakers to the history of colonialism that has made Spanish such a vexed linguistic and cultural phenomenon. This case, even though extreme, serves to illustrate the level of challenges, as well as pedagogical opportunities, of working with Spanish in the Southwest.

Last year, after a particularly drenching conversation with a brilliant Mexican American student who revealed to me the immense psychological difficulties he has had trying to be accepted both in the Spanish-speaking and the English-speaking societies, I decided to start a more careful study of the subject. If I am to be in the position to offer more than my mere empathy to my students when they reveal these past experiences, I have to be able to offer ways for them to deal with this situation that goes so far beyond the language. I cringe to imagine how many of them have simply given up speaking their Heritage language for fear of more ridicule, and the many others who have tried to hide their cultural background in an attempt to "arrive" at the Anglo culture.

A natural step, for a teacher, I believe, is to "teach the conflict." To that effect, since my subject is Spanish, I designed an upper-level course in which the students would review the basic published scholarship about Heritage speakers, bilingualism, code-switching, and the historico-linguistic background of Southwest Spanish. My aim was to provide my students -- especially the Heritage Spanish speakers -- with a sound meta-linguistic awareness about their specific situation. This awareness, I believe, will empower them to approach the learning of their third language -- the so called "standard Spanish," which I prefer to call "Castillian Spanish" -- not from a position of inferiority, but from a definite position of equality.

Quickly: what is the difference between a language and a dialect? A language is a dialect backed by an army.

At the beginning of the academic year, we had the usual general faculty meeting of the humanities, and I was asked to speak briefly about the course. I prepared a page about the project, and read it when invited to the podium. As I read, I glanced at the audience and saw a number of Hispanic colleagues making approving signs and nodding in agreement. After the meeting, during a brief get together over chips, cheese and wine, a number of colleagues told me that they loved the idea and thought this is a perfect time for such a course. Some non-Hispanic colleagues also expressed interest and approval. As the semester progressed, my dean decided to take the course to the university board that reviews new courses and their possible addition to the permanent catalogue. I was invited to go to the meeting. I thought this was going to be extremely simple. Boy, was I wrong.

To cut a long meeting short: soon after I gave a two minute presentation on the main tenets of the course, one member of the board pronounced himself "insulted" by my course. Why? Because, according to him, I used the expression "variant of standard Spanish" to refer to "Southwest Spanish."  "Why," he asked, "didn’t you refer to 'California Spanish,' or 'Chicago Spanish'? You make me feel that the Spanish I speak is a lesser kind of Spanish."

For the record: although he identifies himself as a Mexican American, the man is known to not speak any Spanish whatsoever.

My syllabus, my research, the fact that other linguists have dedicated years of study of these sociolinguistic phenomena and have coined the term "Southwest Spanish" meant zilch. The man was offended. He found fault with everything, from the "sloppy" self-assessment questionnaire I had designed, to the criteria for grades, to the elaborate class assessment system I have designed, to the fact that the course included students’ interviews with their Spanish-speaking relatives and friends. It didn’t matter that I agreed to have the proficiency questionnaire re-designed with the help of a specialist in questionnaires; it didn’t matter that I pointed out all the objectives of the course and their correlation with the criteria for assessment. It didn’t matter that in my syllabus one day was destined for a guest appearance by a member of the psychology
department to discuss interview techniques. It didn’t matter that I offered to have the specialist on research on human subjects go also visit the class, and to supervise the final version of the questionnaires for the interviews.  The man simply said that he didn’t like the course, and that Mexican Americans would be offended.

Some uncomfortable dragging of chairs indicated that my presence was no longer required, I thanked everyone and left.

Two days later, I got the news from my dean, that, even though "not everyone saw it this way," a) the course was NOT going to be put in the permanent catalogue, and b) it was going to be demoted from the upper level.

After the initial outrage at such an unbelievable turn of events, I reached some pretty sobering conclusions. First is that, yes, jerkdom in academia crosses lines of race, color, gender, and language. Second, that not all who purport to be in favor of empowering the students really want to do so: much narrower personal interests and ugly ego trips tend to be a lot more important. Third, there are all kinds of Hispanics, some of whom, unfortunately, do not recognize somebody who is an ally, and would rather have only people of one ethnic group teach any subject related to the interests of that ethnic group. Finally, that one should never assume that goodwill, hard work, and scholarship, will get a new course approved.

I have hit the campaign trail, talking to the other Hispanic faculty about the course. I have spoken to every Mexican American colleague on campus. Not a single one is offended by the project. Not a single one can understand why the offended man got so offended.

Maybe I can: the hurt of Spanish runs deeper than I thought at first. If I ever get to teach this course -- something very much uncertain at this point –- I will start with this episode, and ask my students to try to help me understand it.

Author's email: 

Anónima teaches at a Southwest institution. She hates not to use her real name because of fear of losing her job over this column. But you never know.


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