When Naomi Schaefer Riley was fired by the Chronicle of Higher Education for her trenchant remarks on Black Studies programs, most of those who criticized the firing saw in it a display of the campus left’s intolerance. Fair enough, but this episode also has a much broader meaning.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, large populations of poor immigrants arrived in the U.S.–Irish, Italians, and Jews from Russia and Poland. Their extreme poverty placed them at the bottom of the social ladder, and they were often treated with contempt. Yet just a few generations later they were assimilated, and their rapid upward social mobility had produced mayors, senators, judges, and even Presidents from among their ranks. None of this could have happened without first-rate public education.
To be sure, they worked hard to get ahead, but they were not obstructed by something that afflicts the have-nots of today: as they walked through the school gates they were not met by people intent on luring them into Irish or Italian Studies programs whose purpose was to keep them in a state of permanent resentment over past wrongs at the hands of either Europeans or establishment America. Instead, they could give their full attention to learning. They took courses that informed them about their new land’s folkways and history, which gave them both the ability and the confidence needed to grasp the opportunities it offered them.
When we compare this story with what is happening to minority students today, we see a tragedy. Just as Pinocchio went off to school with high hopes, only to be waylaid by J. Worthington Foulfellow, minority students are met on the way to campus by hard-left radicals who claim to have the interests of the newcomers at heart but in reality prey on them to advance their own selfish interests. Of course, what black students need is the same solid traditional education that had raised Irish, Italians, and Jews to full equality. But that would not serve the campus radicals’ purpose. Disaffected radicals wanted to swell the ranks of the disaffected, not the ranks of the cheerfully upward mobile. Genuine progress for minority students would mean their joining and thus strengthening the mainstream of American society–the mainstream that campus radicals loathe.
Faculty radicals worked hard to put the kind of coursework that had served others so well out of the reach of minority students. They stigmatized those courses as Eurocentric, oppressive, and dominant-class oriented, and they worked successfully to remove them from curricular requirements. The very idea of upward mobility was made to appear a capitulation to the corrupt value system of the dominant class.
As thinkers, campus radicals are poor role models for students. Their ideas are simple and rigid, and they rely heavily on conspiracy thinking that infers far too much from too little. They are powered by emotional commitments that are highly resistant to the lessons of experience. As a result, their cherished ideas are now virtually obsolete, and strike any reasonably well-informed observer as downright silly. The minority students that they attract into their orbit are dragged down to this low intellectual level.
This background is the key to the fury that Naomi Schaefer Riley¹s criticisms of Black Studies dissertations unleashed. Radical leftists have achieved considerable influence on campus in part because they were able to add substantial numbers of incoming minorities to their numbers. They need those students in self-destructive Black Studies courses that keep them resentful and under-educated. But that is only possible if they can maintain the illusion that they help and support black students, rather than exploiting them. Ms Schaefer Riley was a threat to that illusion, and that is why she was attacked so vehemently.
Black Studies does have one thing right: black students are indeed oppressed. What they have wrong is who is doing the oppressing. People of good-will on both sides of the political aisle should join together to insist that black students be given the same chance that other groups got to join the mainstream. This latest version of the plantation ought to be abolished.
John M Ellis is Professor Emeritus of German Literature at UC Santa Cruz, and President of the California Association of Scholars.
14 thoughts on “The Trap of Minority Studies Programs”
Adam Levine — the number of people entering US colleges and universities in the last fifty years who have been slaves is close enough to zero to be considered zero.
“a state of permanent resentment over past wrongs at the hands of either Europeans or establishment America.”
This is one reason for diversity programs. The other is the failure of affirmative action in that universities can’t take unprepared kids into programs that they will fail at (STEM and classics). So if you have AA you also have to have programs AA kids can “succeed” at — to a large extent because they are measured against their AA peers and NOT the student body as a whole.
The funny thing is there is no place for these “graduates” to work but in every expanding administrative roles in diversity programs – raising costs of education for the highly qualified and prepared pursuing higher demanded degrees.
A first rate public education? Hardly. You completely ignore the fact that most of these immigrants were Catholics. Catholics educated themselves through their own schools. Without the church and its schools and hospitals, this country would be a far different place.
Great article, agree completely.
I would argue that a similar wrong is done to blacks with affirmative action and diversity programs, for the following reasons:
1. Filling affirmative action slots often results in students being accepted to programs which they do not have the academic ability to complete. They end up flunking out or dropping out, when they could have graduated from a college with less rigorous acceptance requirements.
2. For the black students that could have made the cut without affirmative action action, they will be stigmatized forever, because no employer can be sure they made it on real merit, or slid through with affirmative action.
I agree with you. My parents came here from Sicily. They did not go to school here. They were to old. Teenagers in 1905. But their kids, one of which I am. Althought I dropped out of HS. I did get a GED. And have at least with the tech schools I’ve been too. One year of college. Thank God for America. I have met many Blacks in my work and life. They are far superior to many whites I know. My grand-duagthers don’t know American Histroy. Because it was not taught in grade school nor in HS. Tony
The only problem with your analysis is that the irish, italians, and jews didnt have to overcome 350 years of the most vicious slavery imaginable…
An older friend of mine, back in the 1970’s, taught me how to crochet. And, among her other lessons was the fact that when she went to school (back in the 1930’s), there were plenty of idiots who wasted space in classroom.s But back then, when they didn’t have what it takes to advance, they’d drop out.
And, yes. Sometimes, they’d drop out because their families were too poor to support their advancements along educational tracks.
Remember Jackie Gleason playing Ralph Kramden? He played a bus driver. Who may have had a high school diploma. But on the other hand his job didn’t depend on one, either! His neighbor, Ed Norton, worked in the sewers.
Today, we’ve over promised kids that if they get credentials, they’ll never have to drive buses for a living. Or work in sewers.
That’s the lie that has come home to roost.
Excellent piece, professor. Spot on.
These Professional Victimhood Majors utterly destroy the students’ lives.
I know a young woman who is a graduated from a well known liberal arts college with one of these useless degrees. After one year, the $75,000 in student loans must begin to be paid off. These loans are non-dischargable, which means they survive bankruptcy, and will follow her for the rest of her miserable, impoverished life.
Her worthless degree presents a further problem, since she has sent out over 400 job-seeking resumes, without a single response. To be honest, who would ever hire such a person?
The thing I’ve always wondered: when you graduate with a degree in “Black Studies”, deeply in debt, which kind of job does your degree qualify you for?
I am not trying to be offensive but the average black person is not capable of studying hard science. They have smaller brains than the Irish, Italian, Polish and Russian immigrants you mentioned. This is an objective fact.
This is why minority study programs were created.
Point taken. But most Irish and Italians were educated in parochial, not public, schools
My daughter is quitting a PhD program for which she has a five year fellowship with a good stipend because she is depressed about the dishonesty of what is expected of her papers. She is by no means conservative but she recognizes that what she is doing is just not scholarship. The program when she began sounded wonderful. It includes two years abroad and all her costs are paid. I spent four hours last night talking with her and her sister about it. She speaks three languages, including Arabic, and can find better uses for that talent. It’s just a shame that a wonderful sounding program at a very good university (private) has such rot at its core.
I teach medical students and see the contrast between foreign born black students and American blacks who have absorbed the victim mentality from Al Sharpton and company. These kids are science majors but still infected with the same virus.
My grandparents were honest to goodness huddled masses (not wretched refuse; we had our pride). My mother once told me that when she was about twelve, which means she and her mother would have been in the US about five years, her father a few years more, she was trotted out proudly for the neighbors, also mostly Jewish huddled masses. “Judith is studying Shakespeare in school,” my grandmother boasted.
If anyone had told my grandparents that the schools should make them feel good about being Jewish, or that the Yiddish-English patois (and they would have agreed that’s what it was) was a legitimate language and their children should be instructed in it, or that their children should not learn to admire and identify with people like Abraham Lincoln and thomas Edison, they would have screamed blood murder.
And there is a connection between that and the fact that their grandchildren have become foreign service officers, doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers, and the like.
I believe one purpose of — studies is indeed to make sure the students are alienated from the society in which they are going to live; thus they will continue to be ideological fodder and more easily controlled. If they were to start identifying not just as blacks but as professionals, or homeowners,or god forbid, just “Americans,” the power of the studies people would wane.
A few years ago I came across a sixth grade social studies text used in the Detroit schools. If I were the Kleagle of the Ku Klux Klan and my goal was to make sure that black kids were alienated and their heads were filled with nonsense, I’d have pushed this book.