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Who Should Go to College?

City on a Hill: Testing the American Dream at City College

by James Traub
Addison-Wesley/a William Patrick book, 371 pp., $25.00


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 the ethnic composition of the school is today altogether different from what it was. The most recent count, for 1992, found the student body to be 39 percent black, 28 percent Hispanic, 18 percent Asian, and 14 percent white. And these figures tell only part of the story, since fully half were born abroad. As often as not, black students are Dominican or Haitian, while the “white” students may be from former Soviet republics or the Middle East. Asian students, a growing group, tend to be enrolled in the well-regarded engineering program, which keeps its distance from the rest of the college. According to Traub, three quarters of all freshmen have to enroll in at least one remedial program. Among the foreign-born entrants, more than half need special classes in English in order to understand what is going on in their regular courses.

All this remedial work has been necessary since the advent of “open admissions.” This policy, adopted in 1970, assures a place to anyone who can produce a high school diploma. Even with a low annual tuition of $2,450, many students apply for and receive financial assistance. (New York’s Governor Pataki has proposed raising the cost to $3,450, with no increase in scholarship funding.) In practice, City College is not fully “open,” since it admits about three quarters of its applicants, directing the rest to local two-year institutions which grant an “associate” degree. Still, the working premise is that if students arrive with deficiencies, these can be overcome with one or two semesters of intensive instruction, enabling an early transfer to the regular curriculum. To find out whether this faith can be translated into fact, Traub devotes much of his attention to remedial and introductory classes.

In a “College Skills” course, we watch a professor striving to teach basic skills that should have been acquired several years earlier. At the opening session, he holds up a headline from the campus newspaper: “Student Turnout Nil at Games.” Only one student can decipher it, and his rendering is, “No one didn’t go.” While all had completed high school, many had never read an entire book, written more than simple paragraphs, or learned to take notes. Few seemed able to make the kinds of connections expected in dealing with college work. “There’s a lot of daydreaming,” the instructor told Traub. “A lot of these kids don’t really think.” In a “World Humanities” class, which was not a remedial course, a student confessed she could only make out the plot of Macbeth by watching it enacted on a video.

Students choose to attend City College, so we might presume they want what it has to offer. Yet in “Language Arts,” the instructor we meet had to battle apathy and indifference, even passive resistance. “Lessons were forgotten from one day to the next,” Traub reports. “Homework assignments went undone.” Also among the missing skills is an ability to write coherent sentences. Students were asked to put on paper what they remembered most about their high school commencements. The following extract, Traub tells us, is a fair sample of the work that was handed in:

The graduation had almost about everything but it had to go on a scedual. It had marching down the isliles, singing the school almata, which I never heard before, and the color guards.

Clearly, students like these are not ready to begin the first year of a baccalaureate program, which leads to the question of why they are even on a college campus. And if they are not ready, it is legitimate to ask what went on—or failed to happen—earlier in their education. Unfortunately, Traub did not visit any of the New York high schools that send students to City College. Perhaps he felt no need to, since by this time we have all heard about the deficiencies of inner-city classrooms. In fact, supporters of “open admissions” knew of these problems a quarter-century ago. But they argued that colleges had more sophisticated resources than high schools did for helping unprepared students improve their skills and knowledge. Here the title of City on a Hill can be taken literally: John Winthrop’s vision of a new beginning, applied to the urban scene.

Two thirds of City College’s undergraduates are black or Hispanic, and in some classes Traub attended, his and the instructor’s were the only white faces. On the whole, though, the book says little about relations between race and educational attainment. Latin and African origins, of themselves, are not the issue. Some of City’s most promising students are from countries like Ecuador or Ghana, where the schools are often more demanding than their American counterparts. The greatest failures are among students raised in nearby neighborhoods. And here the consequences of race are central.

Most black and Hispanic students from New York have spent most or all of their lives in sharply segregated settings, where they have very little exposure to the kinds of mental processes—quick and accurate reading, solving logical and mathematical problems—that will be expected of them at the college level. It makes no sense to call these skills “white,” since they are increasingly the norm throughout the developed world. Indeed, Asian teenagers commonly outscore whites on standardized tests. But far too many of City’s students come from schools whose students are almost all from poor black or Hispanic families.

Certainly these pupils are as inherently intelligent as any other youngsters, as virtually everyone will testify who has taught them in the elementary grades. But partly because of the racial uniformity of both the schools and their neighborhoods, the students have little hope they can compete successfully in the outside world or acquire the techniques with which to do so. Neither at home nor in their neighborhoods, moreover, do many of the students get the kind of encouragement they need for academic success. Thus far, schools that are all black or Hispanic have had great difficulty preparing their pupils for the kinds of tests they will have to pass if they wish to travel outside familiar territory. Traub concludes that even immigrant students move more easily throughout the city than those from inner-city neighborhoods, and know more about the larger world.

Traub devotes the greater part of a chapter to Leonard Jeffries, City College’s best-known faculty member. Jeffries’s notoriety is ironic, since few people who have heard of him can name a single professor at Dartmouth or Stanford. Traub describes one of Jeffries’s classes in which much of the lecture was spent commenting on Traub’s own presence in the room. Still, Jeffries found time for a rambling harangue, with barbed assertions about the Jews financing the slave trade, about the superiority of dark “sun people” to white “ice people,” and about, predictably, the “Jewish-controlled media.”

He talked about Hollywood, and the old racial stereotypes in the movies. He said, “This is the institutionalization of racism that the Jewish community is largely responsible for!” Now, for the first time, Jeffries was shouting. He talked about sun people and ice people. And then he came back to the Jews, the Jews who had run City College and had opposed open admissions. “We’ve never been given anything by the Jews!” Jeffries shouted [italics in original].

Jeffries is an obvious embarrassment to the college. He has long maintained his post as chairman of its Black Studies program, partly by playing on the guilt of white faculty members about the general failure to do more to help blacks and partly on the fear of reactions from black students if Jeffries were to be seen as a victim. Few other colleges with black studies programs have had to deal with teachers who have Jeffries’s gifts for demagogy and few are as sensitively located. At one point, Jeffries warned that were any attempt made to curb him, “all Harlem would rise.” But following a recent Supreme Court ruling that largely excludes administrative jobs from protection on grounds of free speech, it now looks as if he will lose his chairmanship, although his tenure as professor seems secure. In fact, Traub found that Jeffries gets less attention on the campus than outside. In a typical semester, fewer than 750 undergradutes out of 11,500 enroll in his department, and most study not with Jeffries but with other professors, including scholars from Kenya, Haiti, and Nigeria. (Some thirty to forty students attended the course with Jeffries that Traub observed.)

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