The academic scandals and quarrels that filled last year’s newspapers have been driven off the front page by more urgent matters: President Bush’s troubles with Pat Buchanan, General Motors’ record-breaking losses of $4.5 billion, and the usual va et vient of an election year, Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education has lost its lustre as his horror stories have been found not to stand up to dispassionate investigation, while Roger Kimball’s Tenured Radicals catches less attention now that the tenured radicals are spending less time poisoning the minds of the young than dealing with deficits which could reach $50 million a year or more at Yale and Columbia.
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Vol. 14 No. 8 · 23 April 1992
Alan Ryan (LRB, 26 March) confirms my suspicion that the view from Princeton is often a myopic one. Of his many sweeping statements about American black students (with no evidence he has spoken to any) I wish to respond only to one. Ryan pontificates: ‘Well-meant programmes to help black students through college only add to the pressures on those students.’ Part of the legacy of Lyndon Johnson’s so-called Great Society was a series of programmes designed to take intelligent but ‘culturally-disadvantaged’ students, as they were then called, and insinuate them into the college mainstream. I taught in two such programmes – AIM and Upward Bound at SUNY Stony Brook – for a period of six years in the Eighties. Despite its dated-sounding name, Upward Bound over a period of twenty years had taken a thousand high-school students identified as almost certain drop-outs and mostly from difficult family situations and brought them to campus for classes on Saturdays during the year and for most of the summer over a period of three years. As a result, every student graduated from high school, and many went on to college afterwards.
AIM consisted of students who had been admitted to Stony Brook for the fall term but who would not have got in under ordinary admission procedures (a form of the dreaded affirmative action). In both cases, my task was to acclimatise these students to the vagaries of Freshman English, which they would all face in their first year. Ryan notes that black students are more likely to drop out than white ones, but the problems are often more cultural than intellectual. After several false starts, it became clear to me that the best thing I could do for these students was to outwit my former fellow graduate students. Thus we read Zen and the Art of Archery, John Barth, and other icons of the middle-class white Eng Lit teachers they were about to encounter. Most of the staff was not white, but we all felt that in my subject a cultural paradigm shift was in order. Many of the students survived to graduation.
One of the best compliments I ever had as a teacher was a return visit by one who was not my favourite student. I asked him how he was doing in his Freshman Lit course and he replied: ‘Remember all that bullshit you talked to us?’ ‘Yes, Dennis, I remember.’ ‘Well, I got this teacher who’s talking the same bullshit. I never thought there was anyone else in the world who talked like that.’ When it transpired that he was more than passing the class, I felt a surge of satisfaction Dennis would have thought absurd.
By the time Reagan pulled the plug on this particular Upward Bound programme, his policies had rendered the USA so egalitarian that almost half our students were white. We knew we could not do enough to stem the tide of these students being alienated from American society. But we did something, and it irks me to hear the likes of Ryan sitting in their ivory towers at Princeton dismissing the achievements of those who laboured for so long in a much less luxurious vineyard.
Vol. 14 No. 10 · 28 May 1992
Like any rational person depressed by the slow pace of progress in opening higher education to black students, I cheer every blow struck by the forces of enlightenment. Ann Geneva describes just the sort of programme we need more of (Letters, 23 April), and I couldn’t agree more about the problems such programmes must address. I am sorry she should think me dismissive of her efforts: I’m anything but.