City on a Hill: Testing the American Dream at City College
In the history of American higher education, the City College of New York had a distinctive place. Excellence came easily to independent universities like Johns Hopkins and Stanford, which were well endowed from the start. Land-grant institutions drew support from their states’ middle classes, enabling Ann Arbor and Chapel Hill to become prominent centers of graduate study and research. City College had no such clientele. For over a century it charged no tuition, offering education to students who otherwise could not have gone to college, and these students were able to meet high national standards. Harvard Law School saw the promise in a callow City College undergraduate named Felix Frankfurter. The school’s alumni included a generation of first-rate scholars, including eight Nobel Laureates.
But this golden age was relatively short, running roughly from 1920 until the graduation of the World War II GIS thirty years later. Throughout this period its enrollment consisted largely of the children of Jewish immigrants. While supported by public funds, it was allowed to be selective; applicants had to come from high schools with rigorous academic programs and stand in the top quarter of their class. It was a true subway school, attracting impecunious students from every New York borough. Even those who could pay tuition elsewhere faced concealed quotas, limiting the numbers of Jews, among others. Without doubt, the City College of this era was a remarkable success, a social experiment that had a broad and lasting impact.
Its gothic campus is still where it was in upper Manhattan, where Harlem meets Washington Heights. But it is now a very different place, with a new wave of students and a changed approach to its mission. The contrast between then and now is the burden of James Traub’s City on a Hill. A diligent journalist, Traub made many visits to the campus, where he sat in on classes and got to know undergraduates and professors. At first his accounts come across as affecting and sympathetic. Students found in him a confidant, and we get close to young people with such names as Abukar and Hyunsun and Fernando. Traub quotes the students’ own accounts of their lives and aspirations, and he describes how they look and how they behave in class. These portraits make up the best part of the book.
Yet as Traub proceeds, his tone turns adversarial, challenging the current mandate of the college and the capacities of its students. Indeed, it soon emerges that he wants to raise a broader issue: whether, at City College and elsewhere, we are allowing too many young Americans to embark on higher education.
In some respects, today’s City students are similar to their predecessors. Most live on meager budgets, and a subway school may be their only chance for a bachelor’s degree. Many are single parents, work at several jobs, or have only recently arrived in this country. But…
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