The value of college II

An offhand reference I made last week to Lisa Delpit is nagging at me this evening. It’s the part of Other People’s Children (1995) where she talks about the existence of codes of power (what others would call tacit knowledge) and how one of the jobs of good schools should be to lay those bare, damn the accusation of selling out to an instrumental view of schooling. Her argument is that middle-class parents and educators too often talk in a Romantic discourse about schooling, ignoring how advantaged parents teach a great deal about the codes of power explicitly and how unfair it is if you hide some of the secrets of power from poor children. When I began teaching at USF, Delpit’s book had been published recently, and I used it for several years. It never failed to stimulate healthy debate, especially since the majority of my undergraduate students are usually of the temperament and philosophy Delpit was trying to discomfit.

While her argument was more about primary and secondary education, a great deal of it could apply to college, yeah, even to junior faculty. Earlier in the spring, SUNY Buffalo sociologist Lois Weis visited USF, thanks to the Alliance for Applied Research in Education and Anthropology (Kathy Borman’s group in the anthropology department here), and one of her talks briefly referred to Delpit as a jumping-off point to a realistic discussion of what research-heavy universities are looking for in faculty. You think I was unrealistic in urging assistant professors to wait until they’re tenured before sinking a lot of time into experimental forms of scholarship? Go listen to Weis; I saw at least one colleague looking to apply for promotion to full absorb every word, and I thought that was wise. Weis’s talk was unabashedly instrumentalist: if there’s a game to be played in academe, let’s not pretend it doesn’t exist, and let’s make sure that the people we care about can play the game with a full understanding of the rules.

Beneath these arguments is a realistic assessment of how schools combine instrumentalism and the potential for change. Delpit doesn’t worry too much that children of color will sell out; let’s give them the skills to succeed, and while some may want to sell out, we’ll probably learn a great deal about how many won’t. Weis didn’t talk about that much in the hour-long presentation, but given the type of work she does, I don’t think she’s on the side of getting a bunch of sociology grad students to join Wall Street. Being successful as academics mean they can make arguments for a better society in general.

One of my friends and longtime colleagues talks about the time John Hope Franklin visited USF many years ago and when asked about radical change in society, Franklin reportedly said, “Go to the library!” What he meant, or what my friend drew from what he meant, was that the textbooks reach the next generation, but to be in the textbooks, you’ve got to publish research that’s read and influences those who write textbooks. And to publish research, you’ve got to go to the library. It’s a conventional view of academic research coming from one of the great African American intellectuals of the 20th century, someone who grew up in Oklahoma, went to college in Nashville in the 1930s, was denied opportunities in WW2 because of race, helped Thurgood Marshall prepare cases in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and stood by his association with W.E.B. Du Bois in the middle of anti-Communist hysteria as he was ascending the academic ladder. Of course, you might say that it’s easy to take that view if you’re John Hope Franklin, but I suspect it was not easy to be John Hope Franklin, at least not before the 1970s.

The point of all this is that schools simultaneously serve as a vehicle for hoarding privilege and also for breaking it down. The first part is going to exist not because schools exist but because those who currently have privilege are going to use whatever institutions exist to maintain that privilege. So Romantic notions aside, you don’t get a choice in that fact, in any society with formal schooling. The choice is whether we take the tools that currently exist and make those tools available to people broadly. When I first saw a link to the May 16 New York Times article on Vedder’s and Murray’s anti-access view on college, my thought was that Vedder and Murray were arguing that poor families should give up half the tools at their disposal for improving their lives. Are college degrees sometimes used as credentials without reference to what graduates learn? Sure, but you don’t eliminate the use of credentials by refusing to gain one. Are college programs sometimes light on substance or disconnected from the job you might get within two or three years? Sure, but you get to keep what you learn for the rest of your life, not just the job you get in the next few years.

And is formal schooling sometimes mind-numbing, discouraging, depressing, oppressive, disillusioning, lock-sync, and whatever other term you want to call lit? Sure, and that’s a consequence of a structured curriculum that also provides millions of children with access to the life of the mind. If you’ve got the resources and the background to teach your children at home…. hmmn, where might you have gotten it? … sure, you can be a successful homeschooling parent. Of course, if you’re a homeschooling parent, you might well use a prepackaged curriculum that makes your kid’s education fairly close to the structured system that you just called mind-numbing, discouraging, depressing, … well, you get it. There are many, many ways in which formal schooling can improve, and there many ways in which schools carry a political burden that is unreasonable. But that’s no reason to avoid or fail to use the instrumental value of schooling as formal schooling. First let’s graduate the next John Hope Franklin, and Franklin’s readers, and we can also worry about the tortured, contradictory nature of higher education.

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