23 July 2011
Why Higher Education Cannot Be An Agent For Social Equality
Higher education has been touted as an “equalizer” between those who have and those who don’t, those who have traditionally held power and those who have been disenfranchised, and those who are engaged and those who have been alienated.
It’s been sold as a way to give people of color a chance to compete with whites and for women to prove that we are the equals of men.
Now, I must emphasize that nothing is more important than education—not the kind that begins with a capital “E”—for people who have any sort of disadvantage in the job market or in any other area of society. A classmate of mine who worked with the Peace Corps in Africa said, only partly in jest, that the easiest and cheapest way to cut the birth rate in half in just about any Third World country is to teach the women how to read. And any young African-American male in the inner city is practically doomed to a life of under- and un-employment, if not prison—or no life at all—if he doesn’t learn how to read, write and calculate, if not compute.
However, African-Americans, women and others who are not part of the power structure (Yes, I’m talking about working-class white men, too!) need to be as educated as we can make ourselves. By that, I mean that we need to continue to read, to inform and challenge ourselves, and to pass the lessons we learn on to whoever comes after us.
This means that, at some point, we cannot depend on the education systems we have. And we certainly cannot depend upon colleges, graduate schools and other institutions of “higher” education. If anything, dependence on those institutions will hinder us to the point that no matter how much we attain, according to their standards, and even if we rise to positions of authority within them, we can never be anything more than second-class citizens within them.
Think about this: Nearly any rational person will tell you that you can’t ultimately win, let alone rule over, a game in which rules are made by someone who has power (and the means to enforce it) that you don’t have. Yet those same people pursue degrees in fields not of their own making in the hope of jobs that, for the most part, have disappeared or never existed in the first place. And they work for those degrees, and try to otherwise distinguish themselves, in institutions that were designed to train classes of people that, for the most part, no longer exist, to take their positions in a society that only superficially resembles anything we have today.
Now, some people will protest that academia is “tolerant” and “diverse” in ways that other areas of society aren’t. They’ll point to Gender Studies and African-American Studies and all of the other Studies as evidence that there really is a place for someone who has ideas of her own and is willing to work hard enough to realize them.
Well, I can tell you from first-hand experience that those “Studies” garner no more respect from academics who aren’t involved with them than they get from prospective employers outside academia. The real effect of those areas is to “ghettoize” those people whom they purport to empower. Those in the more “traditional” areas don’t want to share their “territory” with people who are poorer, darker or queerer than they are, or who have biological equipment that differs from their own. So they shunt those from the other side of the tracks, if you will, to those areas which they consider to be “marginal” or “peripheral” to their own areas of study.
Researchers have noted that inbreeding produces all sorts of mutations and, ultimately, weakens the species. Other researchers, and any number of people who have firsthand experience with the higher education system, can tell you that it encourages, enables and exacerbates all manner of egotism, pettiness and various personality disorders. That is because so many of those who go through the system and become academics—and even those who become educators at the pre-college level—tend to be people who have never known any environment but school. There are some who go into the military, who work in the corporate world or are self-employed, before going to college or graduate school, but for the most part, those who become professors, department chairs and deans are people who have never been anything but students and employees in educational institutions.
For the rest of this post, I am going to concentrate on the effects of the things I’ve described on women. But I think some of what I’m about to say can be applied to other members of so-called minority groups in the world of education.
In many colleges, women constitute the majority of the faculty in some departments, particularly in areas like English. Most of them have spent most of their lives in school. In that sense, they are no different from their male colleagues. However, even if they were the class valedictorians, the editors of their newspapers, or were chosen for some award or another, they were still reporting to a man. Or, the woman to whom they reported had to report to a man. So, no matter how much they achieved or how much they rose, they never could develop the same sense of confidence or self-worth that the male college president or trustee could.
This lack of self-confidence, quite frankly, stunts their emotional growth. When I decided to go to graduate school after spending a decade in the corporate world, I felt as if I were in a time warp. The women I met in graduate school—faculty members, as well as students—were deferential to male colleagues in ways my mother couldn’t even have imagined. Worse, it seemed that they were trying to keep each other in their “place,” much as the “House Negro” did to other members of his race. Those who didn’t stay in their “place” were punished, in some ways more severely than they could be by males higher on the chain of command.
And I felt as if I’d returned to junior high school. I’ve seen plenty of “cattiness” and have been guilty of some of it myself. However, I have never seen—not in corporate jobs, or even when working in a coffee shop by the interstate when I was in college—anything like what I have seen in the academic world. To be fair, many of our male colleagues are cliquish. But, as immature as their behavior may be, it will never have the same consequences for them that it will have for us.
I fail to see how anyone believes he or she can grow, emotionally or intellectually, let alone spiritually, in such an environment. The worst thing about it is that the childishness of those educators leads them to resent anyone who has, or who will have, anything they won’t or can’t have. That is why they put down talented people who attain success outside the ivory tower. So, the last thing they want you or anyone else to do is to be independent. Working with them will not show you how to acquire knowledge and to think for yourself; it will only teach you how to function at a level that’s just high enough to continue as a second-class citizen in their world.
If you find that you need to think, and to continue your education (in the real sense) as a matter of survival, you are not going to learn how to do those things from people who make gestures of them in order to get grants and tenure. Folks like Malcolm X and Virginia Woolf never went through such a system; they continued to make themselves more knowledgeable and literate on their own. And, Malcolm and Rosa Parks developed an emotional maturity—a “coolness,” if you will—that you will never find among those academic cliques. The “irony” and “detachment” academicians so exalt are merely caricatures of those things that the truly educated people learn throughout their lives.
And now I will confess something: One of the reasons I’ve started this blog is that I think that it will help me to continue my education. That’s one of the reasons why I value your comments and welcome guest contributions. We all have much to learn, and to teach each other, wherever we are. I only hope that all the time I’ve spent in school hasn’t destroyed my ability to learn and to grow.