The old joke about studying English went, “Would you like fries with that major?” I haven’t heard that joke in years. Barista has replaced fast food worker as the career of choice for warning against the perils of majoring in English.
What are we to make of this new old joke about the English major? Why did barista replace fast food worker? The fact is that English majors are not particularly likely to end up as baristas or as workers in the food service industry in general. Plenty of data is available to disprove this idea, so what does its persistence mean? The English major barista is a myth in the sense of being untrue. It is also a myth in the deeper sense of that word: a story that a culture tells itself to explain wishes or fears. In this case, fears.
First things first. Data show that English majors do not tend to end up as baristas. Over each year, the U.S. Census Bureau conducts a detailed survey of about 1 percent of the national population. Called the American Community Survey, this census includes questions about age, educational attainment, field of degree and employment. Respondents to the survey cannot actually choose “barista” when reporting occupation, but they can choose the category “counter attendant, cafeteria, food concession and coffeehouse.” However, the number of people in this category is small when further segmented by field of degree.
A more reliable analysis groups this category along with several related ones, including bartenders, waiters, dishwashers and the like. That larger grouping does not literally count English majors who work as baristas, but it gets at the spirit of the claim, with greater statistical validity. If the destiny of the English major is service behind the coffee bar, then bartending, waiting tables or washing dishes cannot be far behind.
However, none of those food service jobs are the English major’s particular fate. According to the Census Bureau, graduates with an English degree have about a 4.9 percent chance of working in one of these food service occupations for some time between the ages of 22 and 26. By comparison, the average among all degree holders in this age group is about 3.5 percent. So English majors are only about 1.4 percentage points more likely to work in food service than the average for all degree holders.
When we look at mature workers, the data bear out a broader observation: majors in the humanities and social sciences take a little more time to find their career footing, but then they catch up with and sometimes exceed in salary earnings the graduates with more professional degrees. For degree holders ages 27 to 66, the percentage of graduates in English working in food service professions for some time during this 40-year period is 0.72 percent, or about one in 139 majors. Among all majors ages 27 to 66, the average is 0.48 percent. English remains higher than average, but not by much. The 0.24 point difference translates to an additional one in 417 chance of ending up at working in food service at some point between the ages of 27 and 66.
So where, in fact, do English majors end up working? The top occupations for English-degree holders ages 27 to 66 are elementary and middle school teachers, postsecondary teachers, and lawyers, judges, magistrates and other judicial workers. Indeed, English majors, who go on to a range of careers, are less likely to work in food service than in many highly skilled positions, including as chief executives and legislators (1.4 percent), physicians and surgeons (1.2 percent), or accountants and auditors (1.2 percent). Parents worried that their children will study English and end up as baristas should know that their sons and daughters are statistically more likely to end up as CEOs, doctors or accountants than behind the counter of a Starbucks.
Level of education and age, rather than choice of major, most predict work in food service. Between the ages of 22 and 26, people who do not report a baccalaureate degree have a somewhat higher percentage of food service work than English-degree holders: 5.68 percent vs. 4.88 percent. For mature workers, ages 27 to 66, the corollary numbers are 1.45 percent and 0.72 percent. For full-time mature workers, the difference a baccalaureate degree makes is particularly striking. English-degree holders ages 27 to 66 work full time in food service at a rate of 0.53 percent, those without a baccalaureate degree at 1.92 percent. Starbucks has made help with college degree completion a perk for its workers. If all those baristas had B.A.s in English, or in any degree, there would be no need for this program.
Of course, the English major as barista is also shorthand for a general belief that a degree in English leads to underemployment -- that is, to jobs that really do not require a college degree. A recent study shows that around 12 percent of recent college graduates ages 22 to 27 with a degree in English work in low-skilled service jobs. That is the same percent as for baccalaureate holders in this age group who majored in psychology and earth science, and 3.4 percentage points higher than the average for degree holders in general, which is 8.6 percent. Those percentages may be higher than we would like, but there’s nothing distinctive about English majors in them.
Fortunately, too, these percentages are for recent graduates; the same study shows that college graduates tend to mature out of these jobs. As we have seen, the English majors who do work in food service generally do so when they are young and as a first job -- a start, not an end. The coffeehouse is not their career.
To establish themselves in their careers, English majors need to show a bit more resourcefulness than do majors in narrowly preprofessional degrees. And year after year, that is exactly what real English majors do. They do not possess this resourcefulness in spite of their English degree or as a mere coincidence with it. Creative and independent thinkers are attracted to the English degree, and that course of study helps to develop their creativity and their initiative -- the same personal qualities that serve them so well in the working world after graduation.
So why the barista joke? It reflects negative attitudes about the English major itself rather than the realities of an English major’s likely employment. Since coffeehouses are places for reading, writing and talking, spending time in a coffeehouse is a lot like spending time in the study of English. Naturally enough, English majors like to hang out in them. STEM majors have their labs; English majors have their Starbucks. The joke about the English major barista implies, however, that unlike the science done in a lab, the study of English, whether pursued in coffeehouse or classroom, is without value. What better punishment for wasting this time than being sentenced to work at a coffeehouse rather than enjoying its pleasures, serving those who presumably chose some more valuable and lucrative major?
In this vengeful fantasy, moreover, the barista with an English B.A. contributes to the coffeehouse’s cultural sophistication, the human equivalent of its background jazz or pictures of Seattle circa 1971. The English major’s transformation into cultural wallpaper is part of the joke.
The English major makes an academic career out of studying literary culture or (still worse in the eyes of the major’s detractors) ordinary culture inflated into an academic subject. Having to work in a coffeehouse is punishment for that study, since students who are ambitious to become cultural elites instead find themselves in a lowly service industry, working in their local strip-mall Starbucks rather than sitting at a coffee bar in Florence. The particular name that Starbucks made famous for its workers -- “barista” -- along with all its pseudo-Italian terms, like “grande” for medium, is the foam on the Frappuccino. The joke implies that the job and its pretentious, pseudo-high culture name perfectly fit the empty pretensions of the major itself.
The Thin Bar
But this joke about frustrated aspiration is on us all. Consider the coffeehouse’s storied place in the history of European and Anglo-American modernity. Jürgen Habermas made famous the idea that the activities with which coffeehouses are still associated -- reading, writing, conversation -- made them nothing less than cradles of modern literature and democracy. The coffeehouse was a republic of letters, where literacy and the purchase of a cup of coffee were the only entry requirements to participation in literary and political worlds that had once been the exclusive province of courtly and hereditary elites. Coffeehouses were sometimes referred to in the 18th century as “penny universities.” (One still also had to be a man, although Habermas believes the ideals of the coffeehouse militated even against this restriction).
Your local coffee spot may seem a far cry from a cradle of western democracy or a “penny university.” Particularly with regard to Starbucks, the criticism of the coffeehouse today is that it’s a place of faux culture and shallow consumption, where the other side of high-priced coffee drinks is the exploitation of coffee farmers in the third world and of the company’s own workers behind the counter. From that point of view, Starbucks is just about making money. “Everything else,” as one Starbucks critic puts it, is “window dressing.” As part of that window dressing, the Starbucks barista both serves and reflects a world narrowed to maximized profit and empty consumption.
“Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers,” the poet Wordsworth wrote. Still: Starbucks promises something more than getting and spending. However much our local Starbucks is a place to grab coffee as we rush to work, or an embarrassment of ersatz culture, the success of the Starbucks brand demonstrates a yearning for more fulfilling cultural and communal spaces of the sort described by Habermas. Starbucks doesn’t just sell coffee; it sells the coffeehouse ideal. It offers reading and music suggestions, has printed literary quotes on coffee cups, and has asked its baristas to start discussions about race in America. The criticism that greeted the last initiative is telling. Starbucks was seen as too corporate to serve as a place for genuine cultural or political exchange, however much it seems to promise it.
The fast-food joke consigned the English major to a low-paying and unfulfilling job. The barista joke consigns the English major to a low-paying and unfulfilling job that remains tantalizing close to a more fulfilling coffeehouse ideal. To the extent that we also want that ideal, we’re that close, too. We, too, are attracted to the coffeehouse image of a richer cultural and communal life, even if that image promises more than harried working lives and corporate marketing can deliver. A thin bar separates the cultural aspirations, and disappointments, of Starbucks workers and consumers.
A similarly thin bar separates worker and consumer in terms of a feared economic decline. There was a time when we might have celebrated the English major’s drive to explore self and world in college, or as part of a career trajectory that involved some time for similar self-development and exploration of opportunities, before rushing headlong into a career. There was a time when we laughed at hearing the just-graduated Dustin Hoffman advised in The Graduate to stake his future on plastics. And there was a time when we understood that English majors, like other majors in the liberal arts, end up with far more than a salary -- they develop the sense of ethics, history and culture, and the habits of open and reasoned deliberation, that the coffeehouse ideal represents and that are essential to functioning democracies, not to mention to lives well lived.
Today, however, many people laugh at someone who seems unwilling to turn a college education into job training for the industry du jour in order to secure the highest-paying job straight out of college. English majors achieve successful careers, as the data show. That we consign them, in the myth of the English major barista, to a permanent life in food service says less about them and more about us -- about how afraid we have become of defying the market imperative to maximize profit, the single force, apparently, by which we are now supposed to guide our lives.
This fear is reasonable -- stagnant wages, the erosion of unions, the growing use of contract and part-time labor to replace full-time jobs, the increasing gap between rich and poor, and insufficiently regulated financial markets all contribute to the insecurity of middle-class life. For college students in particular, the withdrawal of states from the public funding of higher education, combined with rising tuition, makes any decisions seem risky if they don’t, as the saying goes now, make college an effective return on investment. But the fear is more than that. It is as if any defiance of profit maximization must be met with punishment: the condemnation to a life serving coffee.
We will only really dispel the myth of the English major barista when we confront head-on the structural economic problems and the narrow market ideology that drive the fear behind it. Meanwhile, in their own refusal to succumb to this fear, English majors can be confident they'll do fine spending some time in coffeehouses -- whichever side of the bar they’re on.
Robert Matz is a professor of English and senior associate dean in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at George Mason University.
The current national dialogue around greater access to higher education is encouraging, but zeroing in on it leaves us dangerously close to overlooking the full spectrum of challenges facing today’s students. By limiting national debate to the financial barriers that prevent students from earning a college degree, presidential candidates ignore the larger problem: we are an undereducated nation. Too many of today’s students are unprepared to succeed in college and, worse, in life and work after they graduate.
We know this trajectory begins long before students reach college, and yet we neglect to tackle the problem at its source. We -- all of us in education -- have to reach out to these kids earlier. Despite a clear need for K-12 schools and higher education institutions to work together as one complete system of education, we still operate and receive funds as two separate and distinct entities. And effective systems don’t operate in silos.
Presidential hopefuls should consider a plan that will incentivize K-12 and higher education to get our acts together -- ideally, through a funding model that binds our sectors and ensures investment only in what works. To be truly effective, we should target support to data-driven, evidence-based programs and services that we know not only increase access to college but also boost completion -- and ultimately lead to career success.
As in other states, we see the dire need for this kind of collective action in my home state of New York. For every 100 ninth graders here, it’s estimated that only 73 will graduate from high school. Of those, 51 will go directly to college, 37 will return for their sophomore year, and only 23 will complete their degree even close to on time. Just 23 out of 100, and that is only the average. In our upstate urban centers, it drops to 16. And that’s just in New York, a state that’s doing better than most.
“A Roadmap to College Readiness,” recently published by the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association and the National Association of System Heads, reports a similar trend of underpreparedness nationally and looks at what 10 state systems are doing to address it. In California, each of California State University’s 23 campuses employs an early-assessment program coordinator who works with high school advisers. In Texas, “go centers” pair recent college graduates with low-income and minority students who are academically ready but do not plan to attend college. And each of the states studied offers a senior-year transitional course for students who score below a college-ready level in 11th grade, helping to bring them up to speed before high school graduation.
The common denominator among successful strategies highlighted? All 10 states report that their most effective strategies are a result of K-12 and higher education working together.
To be truly effective in preparing students for successful lives, this partnership model must carry over into a student’s college years and after graduation. Because even the students who are prepared for college aren’t always completing their degree, and even those completing their degree aren’t necessarily finding a job in their field.
Less than 50 percent of adults in New York hold a postsecondary credential of some kind, yet by 2020, almost 70 percent of jobs in the state will require one. That’s an astonishing gap, one that is only slightly narrower than the national average. Any education strategy that doesn’t directly impact that bottom line is not worth pursuing.
As the state’s public university system, the State University of New York owns the challenge of grappling with this issue on behalf of New Yorkers, and we are confident that we have a path forward: a completion agenda that aims to deliver 150,000 SUNY degrees annually, up from about 93,000, by investing in proven strategies that support student completion. Among the approaches we are taking to scale are:
Strengthening cradle-to-career partnerships. As many as 40 percent of children nationwide are not ready for kindergarten. They lack the basic vocabulary and sensitivities this early work demands, and this level of unpreparedness often follows them as they progress through the education pipeline. Adapting the StriveTogether model and working closely with the national organization, SUNY is partnering with communities across the state to ensure that every child, every step of the way, has a chance at success. In Albany, N.Y., one such partnership -- the Albany Promise -- has improved student outcomes with a number of targeted interventions. Through a partnership with Albany High School, for example, they put in place New York’s first in-school administration of the SAT in 2014, raising student participation from 53 percent to 82 percent.
Recruiting, training and retaining more excellent teachers. We know that excellently trained teachers are the No. 1 in-school factor for student success. And while New York is home to some of the best schools and teachers in the country, too many students still never experience great teaching. Through TeachNY, we are partnering with all of New York’s education stakeholders, including the state Education Department, to address a significant teaching shortage by transforming teacher preparation. One of our goals is to cement teaching as a clinical practice profession. Because like a doctor performing surgery or a pilot flying an airplane, we want to provide every opportunity for future teachers to gain live classroom experience before their first day on the job.
Streamlining high school to college transitions. Throughout the country, innovative new high school designs that offer college credit are serving the needs of students who are traditionally underrepresented in college and making a crucial connection between K-12 and higher education. Dual enrollment programs in Maryland, New York, Tennessee, and Texas allow students to earn college credits -- oftentimes even an associate’s degree -- before they graduate from high school.
In New York, we now have 20 early college high schools that offer dual enrollment for students who are traditionally underrepresented in college; 33 P-TECH partnerships, for which students complete an industry-aligned curriculum; and five New Tech Schools, which use a project-based learning model and emphasize the integration of technology in the classroom. Some are transitioning to what we call Smart Schools, which will provide a streamlined program where students acquire an associate degree in high school, at no cost, and then transfer to one of our four-year colleges to earn a higher degree. In our state, these models share an average graduation rate that exceeds 90 percent.
Bringing applied learning to every degree. The value and effectiveness of learning by doing is unrivaled. Our students consistently point to internships, clinical placements, service-learning programs and other work-based experiences as the highlight of their education. Job-placement rates for cooperative education programs nationally are nearly 100 percent. We are bringing applied learning to the broadest possible scale while also working with the state’s Department of Labor to ensure our graduates are meeting workforce needs.
These efforts are a small sample of the interventions and strategies that we know will increase completion for our students. There is so much more to be done in our state and across the country. Cutting costs only scratches the surface.
Free college is a well-intentioned and, in a growing number of states, successful model, but it falls substantially short of what today’s students really need. If presidential hopefuls want to tackle the costs of college and truly make a difference, they should support significant and targeted investment in student achievement that spans the education pipeline and incentivizes schools, communities, colleges, employers and everyone else with a stake in education to work as one cohesive system.
If we could begin collectively serving the whole student, from his or her start in pre-K to and through college and into career, we can help more of today’s students be successful in school, in their chosen field and in life.
Nancy Zimpher is chancellor of the State University of New York.
The story is told of how, during an interview at a film festival in the 1960s, someone asked the avant-garde director Jean-Luc Godard, “But you must at least admit that a film has to have a beginning, a middle and an end?” To which Godard replied, “Yes, but not necessarily in that order.”
Touché! Creative tampering with established patterns of storytelling (or with audience expectations, which is roughly the same thing) is among the basic prerogatives of artistic expression -- one to be exercised at whatever risk of ticket buyers demanding their money back. Most of the examples of such tampering that Robert L. Belknap considers in Plots (Columbia University Press) are drawn from literary works now at least a century old. That we still read them suggests their narrative innovations worked -- so well, in fact, that they may go unnoticed now, taken as given. And the measure of Belknap’s excellence as a critic is how rewarding his close attention to them proves.
The late author, a professor of Slavic languages at Columbia University, delivered the three lectures making up Plots in 2011. Belknap’s preface to the book indicates that he considered the manuscript ready for publication at the time of his death in 2014. Plots has an adamantine quality, as if decades of thought and teaching were being crystallized and enormously compressed. Yet it is difficult to read the final paragraphs as anything but the author’s promise to say a great deal more.
Whether the lectures were offered as the overture to Belknap’s magnum opus or in lieu of one, Plots shuttles between narrative theory (from Aristotle to the Russian formalists) and narrative practice (Shakespeare and Dostoevsky, primarily) at terrific speed and with a necessary minimum of jargon. Because the jargon contains an irreducible core of the argument, we might as well start (even though Belknap does not) with the Russian formalists’ contrast between fabula and siuzhet.
Each can be translated as “plot.” The more or less standard sense of fabula, at least as I learned it in ancient times, is the series of events or actions as they might be laid out on a timeline. The author tweaks this a little by defining fabula as “the relationship among the incidents in the world the characters inhabit,” especially cause-and-effect relationships. By contrast, siuzhet is how events unfold within the literary narrative or, as Belknap puts it, “the relationship among the same incidents in the world of the text.”
To frame the contrast another way, siuzhet is how the story is told, while fabula is what “really” happened. The scare quotes are necessary because the distinction applies to fiction and drama as well as, say, memoir and documentary film. “In small forms, like fairy tales,” Belknap notes, fabula and siuzhet “tend to track one another rather closely, but in larger forms, like epics or novels, they often diverge.” (Side note: A good deal of short fiction is also marked by that divergence. An example that comes to mind is “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe, where the siuzhet of the narrator’s account of what happened and why is decidedly different from the fabula to be worked out by the police appearing at the end of the story.)
Belknap returns to Aristotle for the original effort to understand the emotional impact of a certain kind of siuzhet: the ancient tragedies. An effective drama, by the philosopher’s lights, depicted the events of a single day, in a single place, through a sequence of actions so well integrated that no element could be omitted without the whole narrative coming apart. “This discipline in handling the causal relationship between incidents,” says Belknap, “produces the sense of inevitability that characterizes the strongest tragedies.” The taut siuzhet chronicling a straightforward fabula reconciled audiences to the workings of destiny.
Turning Aristotle’s analysis into a rule book, as happened in later centuries, was like forcing playwrights to wear too-small shoes. The fashion could not last. In the second lecture, Belknap turns to Shakespeare, who found another way to work:
“He sacrificed the causal tightness that had served classic drama so well in order to build thematic tightness around parallel plots. Usually the parallel plots involve different social levels -- masters and servants, kings and courtiers, supernatural beings and humans -- and usually the plots are not too parallel to intersect occasionally and interact causally at some level, though never enough to satisfy Aristotle’s criterion that if any incident be removed, the whole plot of the play should cease to make sense …. Similarity in plots can be represented as the overlap between two areas, and those areas may be broken down into individual points of similarity, dissimilarity, contrast, etc. Without knowing it, a Shakespearean audience is making such analyses all the time it watches a play, and the points of overlap and contrast enter their awareness.”
It’s not clear whether Belknap means to include the modern Shakespearean audience -- possibly not, since contemporary productions tend to trim down the secondary plots, if not eliminate them. But the Bard had other devices in hand for complicating fabula-siuzhetarrangements -- including what Belknap identifies as “a little-discussed peculiarity of Shakespearean plotting, the use of lies.” In both classical and Shakespearean drama, there are crucial scenes in which a character’s identity or situation is revealed to others whose confusion or deception has been important for the plot. But whereas mistakes and lies “are about equally prevalent” in the ancient plays, Shakespeare has a clear preference: “virtually every recognition scene is generated primarily out of a lie, not an error.”
In a striking elaboration of that point, Belknap treats the lie as a kind of theatrical performance -- “a little drama, with at least the rudiments of a plot” -- that often “express[es] facts about the liar, the person lied to or the person lied about.” The lie is a manipulative play within a play in miniature. And in Hamlet, at least, the (literal) play within a play is the prince’s means of trying to force his uncle to tell the truth.
Now, such intricate developments at the level of form also involve changes in how the writer and the audience understand the world (and, presumably, themselves). The Shakespearean cosmos gets messier than that of classical drama, but loosening the chains of cause and effect does not create absolute chaos. The motives and consequences of the characters’ actions make manifest their otherwise hidden inner lives. To put it another way, mutations in siuzhet (how the story is told) reflect changes in fabula (what really happens in the world) and vice versa. Belknap suggests -- tongue perhaps not entirely in cheek -- that Shakespeare was on the verge of inventing the modern psychological novel and might have, had he lived a few more years.
By the final lecture, on Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Belknap has come home to his area of deepest professional interest. (He wrote two well-regarded monographs on The Brothers Karamazov.) Moving beyond his analysis of parallel plots in Shakespeare, he goes deep into the webs of allusion and cross-referencing among Russian authors of the 19th century to make the case that Crime and Punishment contains a much more deliberate narrative architecture than it is credited with having. (Henry James’s characterization of Russian novels as “fluid puddings” undoubtedly applies.)
He even makes a bid for the novel epilogue as being aesthetically and thematically integral to the book as a whole. Other readers may find that argument plausible. I’ll just say that Plots reveals that with Belknap’s death, we lost a critic and literary historian of great power and considerable ingenuity.
In U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy’s 4 to 3 majority opinion in Fisher v. University of Texas, in which he upheld racial preferences in college admissions, he recalls that the court has said that enrolling a diverse student body “promotes cross-racial understanding, helps to break down racial stereotypes and enables students to better understand persons of different races.” Equally important, according to the court’s previous decisions, “student body diversity promotes learning outcomes and better prepares students for an increasingly diverse workforce and society.”
Unfortunately, Justice Kennedy’s decision significantly undermines the very goals the court hopes to achieve. Also unfortunate is that his memory is conveniently selective: he seems to have forgotten much of what he himself wrote in 2013’s Fisher I decision.
That’s a shame, because the country seemed ready to finally put an end to government discrimination on the basis of race and to have it start judging all people on the content of their character rather than the color of their skin, as Martin Luther King Jr. admonished. The court has long suggested racial preferences in admissions were temporary, and in Fisher I, Justice Kennedy set the stage to finally end them. In that opinion, he wrote: “Judicial review must begin from the position that ‘any official action that treats a person differently on account of his race or ethnic origin is inherently suspect.’”
Justice Kennedy also wrote, “Courts must apply strict scrutiny to racial preferences, which must be narrowly tailored and used only if the same goals can't be met with race-neutral means.” In Fisher I, Justice Kennedy explicitly rejected the court of appeals approach of giving deference to the University of Texas and remanded the case, instructing the court of appeals to properly apply strict scrutiny -- which, according to Justice Kennedy at that time, meant that it was to be applied without deference to UT’s claims and unsupported conclusions. That is, UT had the burden to prove that race-conscious admissions were the least restrictive means possible for achieving its diversity goals. Moreover, Justice Kennedy had previously written, in a different case: “Classifying and assigning students” according to race “requires more than … an amorphous end to justify it.”
As Justice Samuel A. Alito noted in his dissent in Fisher II, something strange has happened since Fisher I. Something strange indeed. Under Justice Kennedy’s mercurial race jurisprudence, he has decided in Fisher II that UT is entitled to considerable deference with respect to intangibles like diversity. UT did not prove that race-conscious admissions are the only way that it could achieve diversity, and it also did not clearly articulate the goals that its admissions process is designed to achieve. Nevertheless, Justice Kennedy decided that UT’s use of racial preferences in admissions is constitutional.
I am afraid that this decision will continue the pernicious questioning that hangs over legally favored minority students (nonfavored minority students, such as Asian students, get no preference): Were they admitted to a prestigious university because of their ability or because of their skin color?
Also, similar questions will continue to be asked by every nonfavored minority student and majority student who is not accepted: Were they rejected because of their ability or because of their skin color? Today, given the politically correct atmosphere, especially on campuses, these questions are often unspoken. Nevertheless, people are not only asking them but, in many cases, answering them for themselves in the affirmative -- thereby perhaps diminishing someone’s achievements without reason. The fact that these judgments are unspoken makes them no less devastating to the very goals the court hopes diversity will achieve. As a result of Justice Kennedy’s opinion, these questions continue to be legitimate and relevant, even though they should not be.
In the Fisher cases, Abigail Fisher contends that UT rejected her because she is white. The university uses a holistic approach to admissions in which race is one of the considered factors.
In Fisher I, the court ruled 7 to 1 that race-conscious admissions are subject to strict scrutiny and sent the case back to the court of appeals for the proper application of that standard. As noted, the court demanded that UT prove that its race-conscious admissions process is the least restrictive means available to achieve diversity. But UT has had great success in increasing diversity with a race-neutral top 10 percent program, which automatically admits students in the top 10 percent of their high school class. Because of that, it seemed unlikely that a race-conscious plan would be held to be constitutional.
However, after rehearing the case, the court of appeals upheld UT’s race-conscious admissions standards, finding that UT had a legitimate interest in not only interracial diversity but also in intraracial diversity. Speaking plainly, the university claimed it needed to take race into account in order to admit minority students from affluent families because such students would be more likely to succeed in college and help to dispel stereotyping than those admitted under the percent program (who often come from racially segregated high schools).
In other words, UT assumed that students in the top 10 percent of predominantly black high schools would not have as strong a likelihood of succeeding in college as those from other high schools. This type of race-based discrimination and stereotyping is, of course, exactly what the Equal Protection Clause is meant to prevent.
Nevertheless, Justice Kennedy’s opinion does not address either the percent plan or the new intraracial justification for considering race in admissions that was argued in the court of appeals. Rather, he has now determined that the data on the percent plan was inadequate in 2008, when Abigail Fisher was rejected, to determine its success in achieving diversity.
That means that UT’s admissions policy that is applicable today may or may not be constitutional. The technical constitutional issue is whether the plan passes the strict scrutiny standard of constitutional review. Typically, this standard is strict in theory, but fatal in fact. Specifically, because UT did not produce the data necessary to establish that the percent plan was not adequate, and that a race-conscious plan was necessary to achieve diversity, the race-conscious plan should have failed the strict scrutiny standard. That is why most experts expected the court to find that the Texas plan was unconstitutional. However, Justice Kennedy concluded that the Texas plan, the holistic review where race is a “factor of a factor of a factor,” is in fact narrowly tailored enough, based solely on the newfound deference that he now says is due to UT, to pass strict scrutiny analysis.
The strict scrutiny test has two parts. The first requires that the interest to be served by the challenged practice (in this case, race-conscious admissions standards that give a boost to certain candidates because of their race) involve a compelling state interest. The second requirement is that the means to achieve that compelling state interest (in this case, race-conscious admissions standards) must be the least restrictive means possible.
There’s no question that a diverse student body is a compelling state interest. The issue in Fisher I and II was whether the race-conscious plan was necessary to achieve a diverse student body. If diversity could be achieved with a race-neutral plan (the top 10 percent plan or some other race-neutral approach) then any race-conscious plan would not be necessary to achieve the compelling state interest and therefore would have been unconstitutional. Yet the court simply offered no guidance on this issue.
Justice Kennedy states that UT must regularly evaluate its student body data and the experiences of its students and tailor its admissions approach in light of changing circumstances in order to ensure that race plays no greater role than is necessary to meet its compelling interest in a diverse student body. However, under the new deference standard, this requirement is essentially meaningless. UT basically told the court, as it did in Fisher I, that the court should essentially “trust us,” despite the fact “we cannot prove it or explain how, we nevertheless know when racial preferences are necessary and we will know when they are no longer necessary.” This time, the changeable Justice Kennedy has decided to trust them.
The inherent problem with affirmative action is that it claims that race is a legitimate basis upon which to judge someone, while the Constitution says that it is not. Ultimately, the court will recognize that race can never be used by public institutions in making admissions decisions. But Justice Kennedy’s newfound reluctance to recognize this fact in Fisher II has unnecessarily postponed that day.
George A. Nation III is a professor of law and business at Lehigh University.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruling of 4 to 3 in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin was a close call. For months, supporters of affirmative action in higher education were worried that a majority of the justices would find the University of Texas’ race-conscious affirmative action plan unconstitutional. Opponents were worried about just the opposite. The court upheld affirmative action, as it has done in all the major college affirmative action cases since 1978. So why was it such a closely watched case?
Fisher comes at a moment in history defined by our first black president, as well as by discussions of whether race still matters in public life. It also arrives during a long shift in the debates over how best to address issues of equality of educational opportunity -- whether through the equity-focused policies of the civil rights era or the test- and achievement-focused policies of today.
In her majority opinion in the 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger case, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor suggested that increasing access to higher education through affirmative action is justified by a commitment to a diverse democracy. But opposing camps in the affirmative action debate may have divergent interpretations about what a “diverse” democracy means. To improve the democratic dialogue about affirmative action, stakeholders in the policy process must understand the moral and political beliefs underpinning the terms of the debate.
Although I am a strong supporter of affirmative action, I believe the measured compromises coming out of major college affirmative action rulings over the past 40 years exemplify the strength of our democracy. The debate over affirmative action is an example of an enduring moral disagreement, one that is characterized by different interpretations and emphases of key democratic ideals and values such as equality, liberty and diversity.
After all, the court had previously decided that narrowly tailored affirmative action plans are acceptable ways for universities to create diversity, and in this case, the court agreed with the university that race is “a factor of a factor of a factor.” And the preponderance of research evidence points toward affirmative action as fostering educational opportunities worth wanting as well as more racially and ethnically diverse educational institutions. But the disagreement about affirmative action has never been related to straightforward questions of evidence or what the law allows. If that were the case, then the 1978 Regents of the University of California v. Bakke decision affirming the constitutionality of using race-conscious affirmative action admissions decisions ought to have put out the fires of controversy.
We in America often overlook an important part of these debates: moral and political disagreements are essential parts of democracy. Ideally they stimulate meaningful dialogue across difference so that those with opposing views can -- at the very least -- understand and respect other reasonable perspectives, or even more productively, move toward what Martin Benjamin calls integrity-preserving compromises over contentious policy issues. That is something that the candidates for president would do well to remember.
In fact, all of us, whatever side we come down on in the affirmative action debate, should remember that disagreements are inevitable in a democracy. The key to a thriving democracy is citizens’ ability to discuss those disagreements, to work to understand the values and beliefs that shape our differences. Democratic dialogue allows us to stand in others’ shoes and see one another’s humanity despite disagreement. Such dialogue is the heart of both education and democracy. Without it, the promise of democratic education and politics will remain unfulfilled.
The U.S. Supreme Court finally drove a stake through the heart of the discredited claim by Abigail Fisher, a white student, that she was illegally discriminated against in her unsuccessful application in 2008 to the University of Texas at Austin.
Yesterday’s decision in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin let stand the trial court and Fifth Circuit opinions that had held she was treated fairly in her application. She was not admissible to the university through the top 10 percent plan that accords automatic admission to Texas high school students who graduate near the top of their classes. Nor was she admissible through special admissions full-file reviews. And it should be noted that, although whites constitute less than one-third of all K-12 enrollments in Texas, they make up more than half the students admitted to the university through either of these pathways.
Both the percent plan and the full-file review are nonracial approaches to admissions, and the court’s 2003 ruling in Grutter v. Bollinger held that an educational institution could consider an applicant’s race if it did so through such means. Why would UT be the only institution in the country ineligible to follow Grutter?
Fisher’s claim, which did not challenge the percent plan directly, still tried to have it both ways. Even if I cannot be admitted through a nonracial percent plan program, she was basically saying, and even if I am not qualified to be admitted through the discretionary option, I must have been denied my rightful place by less qualified students of color. This entitlement argument is the dictionary-perfect example of a claim of white privilege.
In yesterday’s ruling, the court held: “Considerable deference is owed to a university in defining those intangible characteristics, like student body diversity, that are central to its identity and educational mission.” At the same time, it called on UT to regularly evaluate data and consider student experience in order to “tailor its approach in light of changing circumstances, ensuring that race plays no greater role than is necessary to meet its compelling interest. The university’s examination of the data it has acquired in the years since petitioner’s application, for these reasons, must proceed with full respect for the constraints imposed by the Equal Protection Clause. The type of data collected, and the manner in which it is considered, will have a significant bearing on how the university must shape its admissions policy to satisfy strict scrutiny in the years to come.”
No admissions policy since 1978’s Regents of the University of California v. Bakke decision has prompted as much study and data analysis as has this series of cases and Fisher’s claim. And as with any comprehensive admissions policy, it will certainly continue to be evaluated.
This case has threatened to become like Dickens’s Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, dragging on for generations, but it is now time to move on. That is what I do when I lose cases, as in today’s disappointing Texas v. U.S. that allows a Brownsville federal judge’s improvident injunction of President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents programs. I will live to fight another day on this case, and Abigail Fisher and her lawyers should also give it a rest.
This decision restores constitutional order to college admissions, and the court should stop accepting such false claims. The last time a minority applicant of color successfully challenged admissions practices was, ironically, Sweatt v. Painter, more than 65 years ago, when the court examined and struck down the racial exclusion then practiced by the same institution.
Finally, through too many twists and turns, this applicant and her supporters have in essence laid a claim to minority status, even as their numbers belie any disadvantage. Fortunately, the court saw through to the truth of the matter. Affirmative action lives on, for now.
Michael A. Olivas is the Bates Distinguished Chair in Law at the University of Houston Law Center, where he teaches immigration law and higher education law, and interim president of the University of Houston Downtown. He was a consultant to the late Texas State Representative Irma Rangel, whose leadership led to the original percentage plan at the University of Texas.
The U.S. Supreme Court today upheld the University of Texas’s use of racial preferences in student admissions. The vote was 4 to 3, with Justice Anthony M. Kennedy writing the majority opinion, joined by Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor (Justice Elena Kagan was recused). Justice Samuel A. Alito wrote a powerful 51-page dissent, which he read from the bench.
The decision came on the unlucky 13th anniversary, to the day, of Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger. And Fisher I, by the way, came down on a June 24, with Regents of the University of California v. Bakke coming down on a June 28. Something about these higher ed racial preference cases always causes the court to struggle with them to the bitter end of the term.
Needless to say, for those of us opposed to racial discrimination in university admissions, the decision is disappointing, for all the reasons that Justice Alito explains. The discrimination that is upheld is untenable in our increasingly multiracial, multiethnic society -- indeed, a society where individual Americans are more and more likely to be multiracial and multiethnic (starting with our president), and where the victims of this politically correct discrimination are more and more likely to be members of racial and ethnic minority groups.
But the silver lining is that today’s decision is a narrow one, both in its scope and in the extent to which it allows the use of racial preferences.
As the court says, UT’s program “is sui generis” and the way the case was litigated “may limit its value for prospective guidance.” A big reason for this, of course, is the university’s use of a “top 10 percent plan,” which was not challenged. Rather surprisingly, by the way, Justice Kennedy seems to suggest that perhaps it should have been. He’s right: if a facially neutral plan is adopted for racial reasons, as quite arguably the percent plan was -- by automatically granting admission to any student graduating in the top 10 percent of their high-school class, the plan was sold to the state Legislature as guaranteeing a fair proportion of black and Latino admittees -- then it is unconstitutional. Put the shoe on the other foot: What if Ole Miss had, back in the day, put its demographers to work and then refused to admit anyone living in a (heavily black) zip code?
Justice Kennedy also warns the university repeatedly in his opinion that it has an ongoing duty to minimize its use of race. And race is, the court says, only a “factor of a factor of a factor” at UT, was considered contextually, does not automatically help members of any group and could in theory help the members of any group, including whites and Asian-Americans. “The fact that race consciousness played a role in only a small portion of admissions decisions should be a hallmark of narrow tailoring ….”
Now, much of this may be quite false as a matter of what really happens at the University of Texas, but other colleges and universities are now obliged to jump through the hoops that the court says UT jumped through. They must, for example and in addition to what’s already been described, do a careful study at the outset to document why using racial preferences is essential to providing the purported educational benefits of diversity and “articulate concrete and precise goals.” Note that, at UT, the ultimate decision makers supposedly did not even know the race of the individual applicants.
More broadly, any college or university’s use of racial preferences must pass “strict scrutiny,” and any institution using preferences must bear the burden of proving that a nonracial approach would not promote its interest in the “educational benefits of diversity” about as well.
Look at it this way: barring a decision by the court that overruled Grutter v. Bollinger and said that colleges and universities may never use racial preferences because the “educational benefits of diversity” are not compelling, lots of institutions would continue to use such preferences, even if the court had left the door open only a tiny crack. If the court had said, “You can use racial preferences only if you can prove that the moon is made of green cheese,” then a number of true-believer presidents would swear on a stack of Bibles that, what do you know, our institutions have found by careful study that the moon is made of green cheese.
That’s why I had hoped that the court would, indeed, overturn Grutter. But since that has not happened, and now likely will not happen for the foreseeable future, then there is no choice but to proceed institution by institution. That’s what the law was before today’s decision, and it remains what the law is after today’s decision. And, realistically, we could not have expected it to be otherwise as we awaited Fisher II.
Sure, it would have been better if the court had given the opponents of racial preferences more ammunition than it did today, but we still have plenty of ammunition on “narrow tailoring” requirements -- for which, by the way, colleges and universities receive “no deference” -- from Bakke and Grutter and Gratz and Fisher I and now from Fisher II.
The bottom line is that the court’s decision leaves plenty of room for future challenges to racial preference policies at other institutions -- and at UT itself for that matter. It’s interesting that, in the run-up to the decision, there was much discussion among liberals that maybe indeed there are better approaches to student admissions than UT’s. Here’s hoping that those discussions continue, prodded along by lawsuits and FOIA requests to ensure that all of Justice Kennedy’s (and Justice O’Connor’s and Justice Powell’s) hoops have been jumped through.
And here’s hoping, as well, that the research continues to document the high costs of the use of racial preferences versus the paltry benefits. The latter are the “educational benefits” for white and Asian students of random observations by black and Latino students. (Yes, that’s what the justification for this discrimination boils down to, as I discuss here.)
And the costs? Just these: it is personally unfair, passes over better qualified students and sets a disturbing legal, political and moral precedent in allowing racial discrimination. It creates resentment. It stigmatizes the so-called beneficiaries in the eyes of their classmates, teachers and themselves, as well as future employers, clients and patients. It mismatches African-American and Latino students with institutions, setting them up for failure. It fosters a victim mind-set, removes the incentive for academic excellence and encourages separatism.
And more: it compromises the academic mission of the university and lowers the overall academic quality of the student body. It creates pressure to discriminate in grading and graduation. It breeds hypocrisy within the college or university and encourages a scofflaw attitude among its officials. It papers over the real social problem of why so many African-American and Latino students are academically uncompetitive. And it gets states and higher education institutions involved in unsavory activities like deciding which racial and ethnic minorities will be favored and which ones not, and how much blood is needed to establish group membership --an untenable legal regime, as I said before, as America becomes an increasingly multiracial, multiethnic society.
So the challenges to racial preferences will continue. Cases already filed against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that had been on hold will now proceed. The struggle goes on.
Roger Clegg is president and general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity, which has joined numerous amicus briefs on behalf of the plaintiff over the course of the Fisher litigation.
The higher education community breathed a sigh of relief today as the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the University of Texas at Austin's race-conscious holistic-review admissions policy is lawful under federal constitutional principles. The decision ended nearly a decade of litigation for UT and clearly preserved existing precedent that allows institutions with an interest in the educational benefits of diversity to include the limited consideration of race in enrollment decisions.
So we're done with this stuff, right?
Not exactly. We should celebrate the decision today but be prepared to roll up our sleeves and get back to work tomorrow. Here are a few reasons why:
The decision does preserve existing precedent, but it gives much more specific insight into what it looks like to align with the court's framework and expectations. It's a bit like the court has for decades instructed institutions to wear clothes -- but now they've made clear that those clothes should be a three-piece suit. Specifically, the court noted that UT was able to show a clear set of diversity-related goals and objectives, a deliberate decision-making process that involved university’s highest leadership and stakeholders across the campus, and an impressive arsenal of qualitative and quantitative evidence about the negative impact of its years of solely race-neutral admissions. Though lockstep adaptation of UT's effort is not likely to be an expectation by future courts, all institutions that consider race in enrollment decisions should prepare themselves to make their own case for carrying the "heavy burden" of passing court scrutiny of these practices, informed by the kind of case UT presented.
The court was very clear that institutions have an "ongoing obligation to engage in constant deliberation and continued reflection regarding its admissions policies" (emphasis added). For UT specifically, the court instructed, "The university must continue to use [its] data to scrutinize the fairness of its admissions program; to assess whether changing demographics have undermined the need for a race-conscious policy; and to identify the effects, both positive and negative, of the affirmative-action measures it deems necessary." Notably, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy did not repeat Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's 2003 prediction in Grutter v. Bollinger that race-conscious programs will not be needed in the next 25 years. But he did make clear that any institution that intends to use race-conscious admissions policies should plan to commit to a continuing process of reflection and evolution over time.
Not everyone agrees with the court's conclusion. Justice Samuel A. Alito, joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts and Justice Clarence Thomas, wrote a lengthy dissent -- and took the somewhat rare step of reading it from the bench today. In it, he expressed concerns about: 1) the "black box" of admissions and other institutional decision-making processes, 2) whether UT provided a sufficient evidence base to support its policies (especially the link between what happens in the admissions process and what happens after students arrive on campus), 3) how race really fits into admissions decisions, and 4) what kind of diversity is really valued in holistic review. In the weeks ahead, we in higher education should spend more time understanding the views of the dissenting justices and think through ways in which they may inform institutional judgments moving forward. That may be especially important given the other cases pending in federal courts and new complaints filed with federal agencies that ask many of the same questions of a new batch of institutions.
As student demonstrations and demands clearly illustrated over the course of the past months, many campus stakeholders do not believe that colleges and universities have yet fully authentically achieved the diversity goals they assert they have. That is, in part, because of the need to consider not only the diversity of the student body but also whether different members feel included and able to participate fully in campus life. After all, the compelling interest at stake isn't about student body diversity as an end in itself. It is a means toward improved teaching and learning, personal and intellectual development, better civic outcomes, and a lively campus environment where all individuals, ideas and perspectives are welcomed.
And, indeed, the court today noted with approval that, along with statistical information that minority enrollment was decreasing under the solely race-neutral regime, UT included minority students’ experiences of feeling lonely and isolated on the campus. Moving forward, colleges and universities should aim to look for evidence not only of the negative effects of the absence of diversity but also, perhaps even more importantly, of the positive effects of a broadly diverse student body on all members of the institutional community -- with attention to ways in which they can advance fully inclusive learning environments for the benefit of all students.
The decision in Fisher II gives colleges and universities greater confidence that they can continue to use race-conscious enrollment policies to pursue important educational benefits associated with diversity. But it also makes clear that doing so requires "constant" effort and the contributions of almost every member of an institutional community. As the decision concludes, "Considerable deference is owed to a university in defining those intangible characteristics, like student body diversity, that are central to its identity and educational mission. But still, it remains an enduring challenge to our nation’s education system to reconcile the pursuit of diversity with the constitutional promise of equal treatment and dignity."
I am confident that institutions across the country -- working with their partners in research, law, business and their communities -- will be able to meet the challenge. But the ball is in institutions' court. We must get to work.
Terri Taylor is a senior policy and legal adviser with EducationCounsel LLC. She co-authored the amicus brief submitted by the College Board, the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, the Law School Admissions Council and the National Association for College Admissions Counseling to the Supreme Court in Fisher II and helps lead the College Board's Access and Diversity Collaborative.
Matthew Daniel Eddy’s fascinating paper “The Interactive Notebook: How Students Learned to Keep Notes During the Scottish Enlightenment” is bound to elicit a certain amount of nostalgia in some readers. (The author is a professor of philosophy at Durham University; the paper, forthcoming in the journal Book History, is available for download from his Academia page.)
Interest in the everyday, taken-for-granted aspects of scholarship (the nuts and bolts of the life of the mind) has grown among cultural historians over the past couple of decades. At the same time, and perhaps not so coincidentally, many of those routines have been in flux, with card catalogs and bound serials disappearing from university libraries and scholarship itself seeming to drift ever closer to a condition of paperlessness. The past few years have seen a good deal of work on the history of the notebook, in all its many forms. I think Eddy’s contribution to this subspecialty may prove a breakthrough work, as Anthony Grafton’s The Footnote: A Curious History (1997) and H. J. Jackson’s Marginialia: Readers Writing in Books (2001) were in the early days of metaerudition.
“Lecture notes,” Eddy writes, “as well as other forms of writing such as letters, commonplace books and diaries, were part of a larger early modern manuscript world which treated inscription as an active force that shaped the mind.” It’s the focus on note taking itself -- understood as an activity bound up with various cultural imperatives -- that distinguishes notebook studies (pardon the expression) from the research of biographers and intellectual historians who use notebooks as documents.
Edinburgh in the late 18th century was buzzing with considerable philosophical and scientific activity, but the sound in the lecture notes Eddy describes came mainly from student noses being held to the grindstone. For notebook keeping was central to the pedagogical experience -- a labor-intensive and somewhat costly activity, deeply embedded in the whole social system of academe. Presumably the less impressive specimens became kindling, but the lecture notebooks Eddy describes were the concrete embodiment of intellectual discipline and craftsmanship -- multivolume works worthy of shelf space in the university library or handed down to heirs. Or, often enough, sold, whether to less diligent students or to the very professors who had given the lectures.
The process of notebook keeping, as Eddy reconstructs it, ran something like this: before a course began, the student would purchase a syllabus and a supply of writing materials -- including “quares” of loose papers or “paper books” (which look pocket-size in a photo) and a somewhat pricier “note book” proper, bound in leather.
The syllabus included a listing of topics covered in each lecture. Eddy writes that “most professors worked very hard to provide lecture headings that were designed to help students take notes in an organized fashion” as they tried to keep up with “the rush of the learning process as it occurred in the classroom.” Pen or pencil in hand, the student filled up his quares or paper book with as much of the lecture material as he could grasp and condense, however roughly. The pace made it difficult to do more than sketch the occasional diagram, and Eddy notes that “many students struggled to even write basic epitomisations of what they had heard.”
The shared challenge fostered the student practice of literally comparing notes -- and in any case, even the most nimble student was far from through when the lecture was done. Then it was necessary to “fill out” the rough notes, drawing on memory of what the professor said, the headings in the syllabus and the course readings -- a time-consuming effort that could run late into the night. “Extending my notes taken at the Chemical and Anatomical lectures,” one student wrote in his diary, “employs my whole time and prevents my doing any thing else. Tired, uneasy & low-spirited.”
As his freshman year ended, another wrote, “My late hours revising my notes taken at the lectures wore on my constitution, and I longed for the approach of May and the end of the lectures.”
Nor was revision and elaboration the end of it. From the drafts, written on cheap paper, students copied a more legible and carefully edited text into their leather notebooks, title pages in imitation of those found in printed books. The truly devoted student would prepare an index. “While many of them complained about the time this activity required,” Eddy writes, “I have found no one who questioned the cognitive efficacy that their teachers attached to the act of copying.”
Making a lecture notebook was the opposite of multitasking. It meant doing the same task repeatedly, with deeper attention and commitment at each stage. Eddy surmises that medical students who prepared especially well-crafted lecture notebooks probably attended the same course a number of times, adding to and improving the record, over a course of years.
At the same time, this single-minded effort exercised a number of capacities. Students developed “various reading, writing and drawing skills that were woven together into note-taking routines … that were in turn infused with a sense of purpose, a sense that the acts of note taking and notebook making were just as important as the material notebook that they produced.”
You can fill an immaterial notebook with a greater variety of content (yay, Evernote!), but I’m not sure that counts as either an advantage or an improvement.
As a lifelong champion of civil rights and a firm believer in fighting for what is right, I applaud our young people for the various protests they have undertaken in recent years, such as Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter. Recently, the young brothers and sisters of MRC Student Coalition at Matteo Ricci College, Seattle University, have taken up such a fight based on curriculum concerns. This protest, however, has become personal for me, since it is in part centered on my autobiography entitled Nigger, and the fact that some students became offended when Jodi Kelly, dean of Matteo Ricci College, recommended Nigger to a student to read.
While I strongly support their right to air their grievances, I ask these students to ask themselves if the scale of their movement is appropriate for a curriculum discussion. Can students adequately connect a recommendation to read my autobiography with their larger curriculum issues?
I am not offended by Dean Kelly's use of the word “nigger.” In fact, I am pleased that she has the foresight to want to give these young men and women the knowledge, insight and experience of a civil rights activist that might just help them understand life a little better. I am disappointed that they seemed to have stopped at the title instead of opening the book and reading its contents. Years ago my mama told me, “Son, sticks and stones can break your bones, but names will never hurt you.” I grew up thinking that Richard was what they called me at home, but my real name was Nigger.
That’s why I named my autobiography Nigger, because it only echoes what “they” called me -- it doesn’t define who I am. People called me nigger in 1964 when I marched with Martin Luther King Jr., when I sat in the Birmingham jail with him and when I walked across the Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. When I fasted for 72 days protesting the Vietnam War, the white folks and even some black folks said, “Look at that crazy nigger.”
I have frequently said that sometimes black folks focus on the wrong injustices. For example, black folks tolerate Howard University being named after General Howard, who became famous for killing Indian children, and Spelman College being named after the grandmother of Nelson Rockefeller. Many times we rise up for injustices that are not the most oppressive. I frequently speak on college campuses and explain that we were fighting for liberation, not education. A liberated mind requires a deeper historical and analytical understanding about the good, bad and ugly regarding America’s past, and its future.
I tell students they should be concerned that some of their classmates can’t walk down the streets in certain cities without the fear of being shot by both gangbangers and misguided police officers. They should be concerned about violence and sex assaults on college campuses. The National Rifle Association wants to arm students -- and that doesn't bother you? Students should be concerned about the exorbitant cost of education and subsequently student debt, the next financial crisis. Also, students should be concerned about a job market that is not going to be waiting on them upon graduation.
Some students want to punish Dean Kelly for giving them some good advice. Somehow, her advice and the hypersensitivity to her suggesting my book by its title managed to get dragged into the curriculum debate. By adding a hot-button racial component to that debate, the students managed to water down their main objectives. Movements need to be clear and well defined, yet they rarely are.
I have read the students’ list of demands, which include issues such as “Classrooms which encourage healthy academic discourse.” That includes fostering dissent, analyzing diverse narratives, discussing the intention of others and dealing with microaggressions. Classrooms must also provide space to discuss how books from previous generations may be problematic yet remain very much connected to modern-day issues.
There’s a blurb on the cover of my book from The New York Times. It says, “Powerful and ugly and beautiful … a moving story of a man who deeply wants a world without malice and hate and is doing something about it.” I’m proud that Dean Kelly recognized my autobiography as something that students of all races can learn from. I am also proud and pleased that my autobiography Nigger was among her collection of books.
I do not presume to know more than professional educators. Yet it appears to me that Dean Kelly was encouraging healthy academic discourse. I ask the students to ask themselves if they objectively considered Dean Kelly’s real intentions and if they themselves are willing to engage in academic discourse. This seems like an issue that is bigger than one dean. It also seems that if both sides were to have meaningful discussions, they would find common ground.
The person who has read and is now recommending my autobiography to her students is most likely not racist. My communication with Dean Kelly leads me to believe that she respects students’ intelligence enough to share with them the autobiography of a black man who was honest enough to name his book Nigger.
Students, your dean didn’t name the book -- I did. I am hopeful that my autobiography will become required reading at Matteo Ricci College -- and I am certain that it will be enlightening. I’ll even provide the books for free. Continue to be respectful and peaceful, loving and lovable.
God bless you,
Dick Gregory is an American civil rights activist, social critic, writer, entrepreneur and comedian.