Tag Archives: Slavery

Pandemic Influences on Higher Education Choices

My good friend and professional colleague, Kevin Mitchell, founded the Business Travel Coalition (http://www.businesstravelcoalition.com/) many years ago and publishes a subscription based daily newsletter of important reporting on the entire travel business. The newsletter, now called tVillage Intelligencer, is seen by thousands around the world.

Kevin is prolific writer and thinker and has published a thoughtful and, as always, well-crafted essay addressing the implications of the pandemic on the decisions being faced by many families and young people whether to go to college or pursue other options. I responded to the piece and, with Kevin’s permission, am republishing the exchange here (without the graphics; his original essay can be seen at  https://publicate.it/p/KqXmdg152169):

A Pandemic Consequence: The Questioning of Higher Education

No idle Memorial Day weekend exercise for some

This weekend as Americans think about and honor the more than one million patriots who gave their precious lives for the promise of America, there is even more on the minds of parents. The economic fallout of the COVID-19 (C19) pandemic is causing parents of children already in college, about to enter college or considering applying to think long and hard if such an expensive commitment is the best and only path for their children.Indeed, there is a counter-push against the American must-go-to-college mantra that is increasing in strength. I believe that like previous pandemics, C19 will accelerate many existing or latent economic and societal trends. The crisis is likely, for example, to push a lot of parents and their children to rethink the cost/benefit of a traditional college education compared with alternative paths.

Sadly, a lot of kids today go to college because all their friends do without considering whether that’s what they really want to do and if it is worth 4 years of their lives and a lot of expense, including lost wages, versus other options. For sure, some have a dream of becoming an architect, physicist, astronaut or the next Olympic track star. However, that’s different in that those young adults have strong personal life-purposes and visions. Still, for others, they want to explore new intellectual, social and cultural experiences that are important and valuable to them to better understand.

Higher education has been justifiably pedestalled as a highly valued tradition in Western and non-Western cultures for its numerous and far reaching societal benefits. My grandmother and grandfather, for example, immigrated from Ireland to America in the early 20th century and originally took jobs in Boston as a maid and policeman respectively. They were determined to put my mother and her sister through college to improve their lives. My mother graduated from Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia in 1940 when very few women of her parents’ means were able to attend college. Both went onto long careers in education touching many thousands of lives and living the American Dream. So, I am all-in for this important tradition of higher education and its linkage to upward social mobility.

Today, however, especially against the backdrop of a C19 economic crisis, where close to 40 million Americans have so far lost jobs in a highly unsure future-looking economy, many are beginning to challenge the assumption that college is the only path on which to responsibly put their children to achieve the American Dream and a productive, fulfilling life.

It’s not just the high cost. Also at issue is the perceived uneven quality of the education itself, the totality of today’s campus experience and the enabling public policy. Many point to the financing model of higher education as a root cause of the $1.6 trillion college tuition debt-bubble that is more likely to burst during this C19 economic malaise as parents making loan payments are increasingly under financial duress. And let’s not forget the superrich buying their kids’ entry to prestigious universities; not a good look for American society or higher education! In combination, these developments reinforce some parents’ weariness and instincts that it’s time for a revalidation of assumptions. This should worry U.S. institutions of higher learning that have already seen student enrollments decline every year since 2011.

It’s fair to ask if recent graduates are better prepared to work hard, take risks and achieve success than if they had chosen to take a different path, or waited for a while until they discovered their keen interests or passions to make the best possible decisions for themselves.

Perhaps with some irony, a pandemic is once again poised to insert itself in the trajectory of higher education – which has been forever short on innovation and long on cost increases. University education was democratized for the masses as an eventual consequence of the Bubonic Plague in the 14th century wherein prior to that time those of us with European roots had ancestors some 75% of whom were serfs largely confined to their lords’ fields and heavy-handed restrictions. However, while there is something very important about the pursuit of university study that should be understood, valued and safeguarded, there is reason for healthy skepticism as well.

I graduated from St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia in 1980 with a 4-year tuition debt of a mere $10K, which I easily paid off in 3 years. Was it worth it for me? Yes, because I learned that jobs in a big company without a degree were virtually non-existent. In my case, a bachelor’s degree in international relations apparently provided an employer with an indication of some competence and/or other positive attributes. I was offered a job by CIGNA Corp.

Beyond getting my foot in the door at CIGNA, did I secure new skills and knowledge from investing four years of my life and working full-time, year-round? Yes. Was it an even-trade for the benefit? Leaving aside that it represented the key to the CIGNA door, my answer is a resounding no. Very little of what I learned in class helped me in my career and I did not benefit from the interactions of living on campus with fellow students because I lived at home.

The university model should be fundamentally reformed. However, it should also be cherished and safeguarded while culturally celebrating the upward-mobility successes available to those in America who want to strike out with personal visions and work hard and achieve their goals without four-year college degrees. Options include self-education, job training, trade schools and technical certifications, as an example, for aircraft mechanics.

The classic American expression “self-made man” was coined in 1832 by U.S. Senator Henry Clay to acknowledge the inner promise and strength of individuals who work hard and succeed irrespective of the circumstances in which they find themselves. There are enough examples in America to fill a university library.

Born poor in Kentucky, and with a total of one year of school, self-educated Abraham Lincoln led our country through its most profound crisis ever during the American Civil War abolishing slavery and fundamentally modernizing the American economy. Lincoln pursued a path that diverged from Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, Penn, Haverford, Fordham and other institutions accepting students at that time.

Lincoln, instead, chose a version of distance-learning enabled by borrowed books to become a self-taught lawyer at age 25, state legislator, Member of Congress and President of the United States. With some irony, in 1862 Lincoln signed into law the Morrill Land-Grant Act enabling the creation of soon-to-become prestigious universities such as Cornell, MIT, Penn State, Rutgers, Ohio State, Texas A&M, West Virginia and the University of California.

Not such a bad path, role model or agent of change! 

Perhaps it would be counter-intuitive, but fruitful, for colleges and universities to celebrate and embrace alternative paths to four-year degrees and lifelong learning and reinvent themselves by taking a leadership role in a comprehensive national initiative to prepare future generations of Americans to be productive, highly successful citizens. Lincoln, the epitome of the self-made man, was able to appreciate accomplishment without the benefit of a college degree and, at the same time, to champion the strategic importance to our nation of expanding institutions of higher learning.As pandemics are wont to do, I am sure many Americans this Memorial Day weekend are using the reflective time to think over many long-held assumptions about important components of their lives from college, to work-life balances, to placing their parents in nursing homes.

My response:

I read with great interest your essay on the questioning of higher education as a partial result of the economic disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic. I have been mulling this subject for a long time, inspired by some much earlier published pieces in which (1) a successful entrepreneur (one of your “self-made men”) argued that college was useless, that his son would have to make his way as an innovator, just like dad, or fail, without wasting time in college; (2) arguments were presented that the cost-benefit analysis, comparing future earning differentials for college graduates v. non-college people showed conclusively that, as you have suggested, it’s “not worth it.”

Having been blessed with a scholarship-financed liberal arts education at an Ivy League college, also with associated debt to repay, I must dissent.

You are no doubt correct that the economic destruction wrought by the pandemic will force many to rethink their ability to pay for a college education. This is but one of the many tragedies to emerge from the pandemic. But that, I suggest, is a separate issue from whether a college education is so valuable that, if the opportunity exists, it should almost always be chosen. The value is properly determined not simply by traditional “cost benefit” analysis but by a broader range of intangible considerations.

For example, an on-campus college education presents the opportunity for young people to engage with a range of intellectual and other mind-expanding stimuli in an atmosphere that, if properly run, expands understanding of how the world works. It forces students to confront different points of view and to think more deeply about hard questions about which they previously just assumed the answers. They have the opportunity to confront and understand complexity. Ultimately, they learn to think, often about subjects they had no original interest in and would never have been touched by in the absence of the “cloistered” college experience.

Viewed this way, college is not just a trade school, a place where you learn how to do something. It’s a place where you come to understand what you can and should be doing and then you move on to more advanced studies or enter the world and take up the rest through direct experience.

I do not suggest, however, that college is right or necessary for everyone. But it is right for most young people who life paths are still being sorted at the time college is an option .It is not just the ticket to superior employment – it is the essential prerequisite to the fully examined life.

I believe we are seeing now in our society the consequences of having a large population of adults who did not have this experience. The polls refer to them as the “non-college educated white people.” They tend to support Donald Trump, to revere destructive rhetoric, support anti-immigrant and anti-diversity policies, to “hate” the “other,” defined as people not like them. Their thought processes embrace ideas like “fake news” and are unable to distinguish truth from ideology. They don’t think deeply about anything because they’ve never been required to do so. They see themselves as victims and engage in much magical thinking, including attraction to conspiracy theories.

Obviously, not all non-college educated people are like that but I believe the shockingly large segment of the American population that the above does describe is in significant part a function of the lack of higher education and the exposure to “other” ideas and “other” people that such education most often provides.

It would be ideal, of course, if the United States offered both paths, so that those people who only want to learn a trade and pursue the resulting life can do so. In the past the country did have trade schools but the shifting of manufacturing to foreign sources caused job opportunities in many trades to dry up, leading to the closure of many related educational opportunities. The demand now is for computer science and related skills and while there are schools devoted largely to teaching those things, the emerging students will likely lead more rewarding lives, all aspects considered, if they also have some learning experiences in literature, history and the like.

You and I are probably not as far apart as might appear with respect to the above. Where we more seriously diverge, I suspect, is regarding the notion of the “self-made man,” for which you cite Abraham Lincoln as a stellar example of what can happen to individuals with the “inner promise and strength … who work hard and succeed irrespective of the circumstances in which they find themselves.” Lincoln certainly stands out in the pantheon of such people, but I suggest that the chances today of more “Lincolns,” or even more Steve Jobs emerging and doing great works, as opposed to simply making themselves rich with some new technology they imagined, is slimmer than ever.

That is not just a consequence of the greater complexity of today’s knowledge-demands; the system has been rigged to suppress many of the potential innovators. I wrote about this in my blog post entitled, The Larger Meaning of “Hidden Figures” https://bit.ly/2TGx172, the gist of which was expressed thus,

 As bad as slavery, Jim Crow and segregation were for the direct victims, and most of us cannot comprehend how it was to be the constant target of such practices every  day of our lives with no hope of change, the larger lesson from this movie is, I believe, the staggering cost to everyone, in the United States and everywhere, of the lost  contributions and achievements of which these practices deprived us.  And still do.

In the millions of people directly suppressed by these practices, it is a certainty that there were multitudes of people who would, in other circumstances, have become  great scientists, inventors, artists, musicians, athletes, caregivers, writers, teachers and on and on. All of us have lost forever the benefits of the achievements of those  people who never had a chance to develop into their individual potentials as human beings. The frightened people of no vision who perpetuated these practices from    America’s earliest days even to today in some places have deprived the country and the world of an immeasurable gift.

One of the most surprising aspects of that blog post, written in in early 2017, is that visitors to the blog to this day seek it out more than anything else I have written. From where I sit, there may still be some chances for so-called “self-made men” to emerge but the odds are heavily against them. And, I must say, that the term “self-made,” in my opinion, grossly understates the contribution that others made to all such people, including Abraham Lincoln properly understood.

In conclusion, having staked that position, I now declare that I agree strongly with you regarding the need for reform in our education system. Those reforms should certainly include opportunities for future “tradesmen” to learn and proceed with an honorable path through life. They should, I think, also provide for a viable economic path to and through higher education so that everyone who wants to study anything serious should be able to do so without assuming overwhelming debt that take decades to repay and have all manner of deleterious impacts on individuals, families and society at large. I readily confess I don’t know how to get to that idyllic state, but the price we pay as a society of failing at this may well be our undoing, not just as a nation-state but as a civilization.

The Larger Meaning of “Hidden Figures”

My wife and I saw the movie Hidden Figures this weekend. It’s about three Black women who worked for NASA as “computers” at the beginning of the space race between the United States and the then Soviet Union. “Computers” at that time meant “human calculators,” who ran staggering volumes of numbers, formulas and calculations in geometry and calculus to determine the necessary acceleration, deceleration, orbital angles and the thousands of other details that had to be exactly right to risk sending a human into space. For the most part they used adding machines and, though not seen, likely slide rules as well.

Without giving away too much, the movie is a well-crafted piece of story-telling, funny at times, painful to watch at other times, sometimes both at once. If it proves anything, perhaps it shows that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Having grown up in the segregated 1950s and 1960s in Memphis, Tennessee, there were moments of almost physical pain at seeing graphic reminders of the cruelty and stupidity of the suppression of Black Americans throughout our history.

As bad as slavery, Jim Crow and segregation were for the direct victims, and most of us cannot comprehend how it was to be the constant target of such practices every day of our lives with no hope of change, the larger lesson from this movie is, I believe, the staggering cost to everyone, in the United States and everywhere, of the lost contributions and achievements of which these practices deprived us.  And still do.

In the millions of people directly suppressed by these practices, it is a certainty that there were multitudes of people who would, in other circumstances, have become great scientists, inventors, artists, musicians, athletes, caregivers, writers, teachers and on and on. All of us have lost forever the benefits of the achievements of those people who never had a chance to develop into their individual potentials as human beings. The frightened people of no vision who perpetuated these practices from America’s earliest days even to today in some places have deprived the country and the world of an immeasurable gift.

Now many of those people use the consequences of these practices as the pretext for arguing that young Black males are prone to violence, are uneducated, lazy and shiftless and thus make protection against them as the priority. Imagine the result if the situation were reversed and Black people had been the masters and whites were the slaves and everything else was the same. For an interesting incident to the same effect, see http://bit.ly/2jCAG1X.

We can’t undo history. But we can at least recognize the root causes of the way things are now and thereby be inspired to work to correct what all of us have done. It is no doubt true that many advances have been made and I don’t mean to suggest there has been no progress. But isn’t it self-evident when reading the news that the United States is gravely ill. Complaining on social media or railing at Washington may make for warm feelings but it does not address with action the consequences of our troubled past. If people who can influence change fail to act, how long can our democracy endure?

The American Killing Fields

The eulogies are finished … for now. The President has spoken in his customary way of the pain of millions at the problem of racial conflict that is at heart of the shootings of black men by police and the retaliatory murders of police by black men. That is not to say that there are no police shootings of white men. There certainly are. But the data showing endemic racial profiling of black men (and women) appear incontrovertible.

The data cannot be explained away by arguing that since black men commit more crimes, it is only natural that they would be stopped, frisked, arrested and, yes, shot, disproportionately to their presence in the population. The excessive stopping, physical assaulting and shooting do not always take place in crime-ridden poor black neighborhoods. Day after day, black men of substantial roles in communities across the country — black doctors, black lawyers, black pastors and black businessmen — recount stories of traffic stops and hostile and threatening police interrogations, often covering spans of many years. No, the data cannot be explained away with “what do you expect from “people like that?”

It is a form of collective and deliberate blindness to reality to deny the facts showing discrimination in our law enforcement and judicial systems. It is also evident in many of the videos that circulate after each episode that people sometimes react verbally in challenging ways that in turn lead to strong physical reactions from police. There is plenty of “blame” and “fault” to go around.

This is not a problem that just happened in the past few years. It has been with us since the founding of the country. Tolerance is a great American virtue but we as a society have tolerated evil actions that have repressed massive numbers of Americans for a very long time.

Where did all this begin? You can trace the tribalism of the population back the era of the “divine right of kings” or beyond, if you like. For our purposes, though, perhaps the colonization of America is as good a starting place as any. The original settlers came to this country to escape religious persecution and immediately set up their own systems of discrimination. In the beginning, not everyone was equal. And it has been ever thus.

The men who rebelled against the British Crown and led the way to the creation of the United States were mostly white aristocrats and intellectuals. They had no intention of giving the vote to women, for example. Enslavement of black people from Africa under the most barbaric conditions became a central timber holding up the economy of the country, especially in the “south.” And despite the horrors of the Civil War, , Reconstruction and Jim Crow laws, it was not until 1954, in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, that the Supreme Court of the United States could get its collective mind around the idea that “separate but equal” education was unconstitutional. In my junior high history class in 1950s Memphis, the Civil War was still taught as “not about slavery;” slavery could not even be discussed in class.

Desegregation of the schools “with all deliberate speed,” turned out to be a long term intractable problem over much of the United States. For those who want a “Cliff Notes” style refresher on the aftermath, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brown_v._Board_of_Education, which is a decent summary.

The Brown decision was followed by, among many other signs of white resistance to equalization of educational opportunity, the rejection of the law of the land by the then governor of Alabama, declaring in his 1963 inauguration speech the following words:

“Today I have stood, where once Jefferson Davis stood, and took an oath to my people. It is very appropriate then that from this Cradle of the Confederacy, this very Heart of the Great Anglo-Saxon Southland, that today we sound the drum for freedom as have our generations of forebears before us done, time and time again through history. Let us rise to the call of freedom- loving blood that is in us and send our answer to the tyranny that clanks its chains upon the South. In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny . . . and I say . . . segregation today . . . segregation tomorrow . . . segregation forever.” [emphasis added]

The speech is all the more astonishing because of its blatant appropriation and reversal of the very symbols of slavery in phrases like: “tyranny that clanks its chains upon the South.”  Governor Wallace was not interested in a serious discussion of whose chains were clanking on whom. Additional parts of the address may be seen at http://www.blackpast.org/1963-george-wallace-segregation-now-segregation-forever. Governor Wallace had many supporters for his racist creed within, and far from, Alabama. Many Americans still believe in it, though most will likely deny it if asked directly.

The difficulty of bringing America into a post-racial status is illustrated by the fact that, after Brown, another eleven years passed before the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was enacted, to, among other things, enforce the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution that had been adopted in 1870 following, by half a decade, the end of the Civil War, which, I say again, was taught in my Memphis junior high as “not about slavery.”

So, without belaboring the details, the oppression of black people in America continued apace, resulting in geographically isolated black neighborhoods, denial of access to capital, underperforming and under-resourced schools, susceptibility to drugs and all that accompanies them, including constant violence and a staggering number of broken families. When I moved to the Virginia suburbs of the nation’s capitol in the late 1960s, racial discrimination in housing was still openly practiced.

Who is responsible for this situation? I suggest the answer is: everyone. The normal post-slaughter cries for better police hiring practices, better training, more “community policing,” more “transparency and accountability” and similar palliatives are, of course, good steps to take. Each will help to some degree. But they do not go the heart of the matter, to the true roots of the racial crisis that has enveloped the United States from coast to coast, north and south, affecting every place and every citizen. Everyone who thinks about it in a reasonably deep way is concerned if not outright afraid. Until we address the root of the problem, the evil virus of racial conflict will continue to fester and grow.

To some degree, everyone who has supported, through action, word or silence the continuation of the attitudes of white racial superiority is responsible. Everyone who looked the other way in the face of blatant job discrimination all around them. As the super-rich Republican children of Donald Trump remind us, there were plenty of obstacles for the immigrant families of other ethnicities who came to this country seeking a better way of life. But it is no exaggeration to state that the obstacles placed in the path of black people, including both legal, institutional and cultural barriers, far exceeded anything, in both depth and duration, that other ethnic or racial groups faced.

And, yes, as they also remind us, there are plenty of examples of black people and other racial/ethnic minorities who were individually able to rise above the obstacles and participate in the “American dream.” But the rush to cite the examples of “my hard working immigrant parents and grandparents” is itself evidence of the racism that is eating away at the fabric of our society. The success stories are heartwarming and play well to crowds in the conventions, but as a percentage of the lives lost to race-based obstacles to personal growth and achievement, they are all but meaningless. The fact that a relative handful made it out of the swamp of educational, social and economic deprivation says nothing at all about the vastly larger number who drowned in the quicksand sucking at their lives from birth.

We are now where we are. We can continue to wish for a better tomorrow while the killing goes on, while the deprivation of opportunity and the ravages of crime and indifference to poverty continue to erode the fabric of the country. Hope, as the saying goes, springs eternal. But I suggest something more profound is required and it likely must start with a kind of overt confession of white responsibility for the history that has brought us to this state.

I have no easy answer as to how to promote culture change in these circumstances. Many billions, if not trillions, of dollars have been spent over the years by right-thinking people and organizations, including the federal government, trying to defeat the forces that drag down minority people, primarily black but also now Hispanics that have come to the U.S. seeking a better life than their failed countries can provide. Ironically, and Donald Trump notwithstanding, America is still seen as the “land of opportunity” by people who know what real lack of opportunity looks like. Perhaps the most remarkable thing is the tenacity of the idea that there is still a possibility of racial reconciliation and that truth and justice will indeed be the American way.

But if we do not start by accepting the harsh truth about ourselves and our history, we are unlikely to progress. The National Rifle Association’s mantra of “arm everyone” seems more a prescription for preparing for racial war that a solution to crimes against humanity that have led to our violent and distorted society.

The solution, if there is one, must be found in changing the arc of our history. Enthusiasts for religion should look at what their religion expects of them. I doubt they will find much support for the Republican mantra of “I will work hard, and get as much stuff for me as possible and too bad for those that can’t compete with me.” Humanists will start somewhere else but inevitably must arrive at the same place, recognizing that the educational and cultural divide in this country is not sustainable.

We are at an important crossroads in that one of the two political parties that have a chance to produce the next leader of the United States and the Free World is presenting the country with someone who, while talking much about restoring greatness, defined essentially as American superiority over everyone else, is selling an image of a bygone and unrecoverable day to people who feel threatened by the changes that technology and globalization have wrought. Most of what this candidate has presented as policy and platform is based on outright fabrications, but his followers, proponents of American Nationalism, don’t care that his public persona is often out of control, running on ego fumes and indifferent to the concerns of, I believe, a significant majority of Americans. When challenged regarding his epithetical comments about Muslims, Latinos, Blacks, disabled people, women, among others, he typically doubles down on his contempt. His “commentators” on the “news” shows like CNN, constantly rationalize, reinterpret and recast his statements to reveal the “true Trump” with fantasmagorical distortions of “what he really meant.”

Trump’s acceptance speech last week, as clearly as anything before, represents a throwing down of a gauntlet to the rest of the world – a Trump administration will put “America First” and the rest of you can take a place in the queue. That a large number of Americans appear to be believe that this is a viable approach to international affairs, and that it will be accepted by other nations who are supposedly allied with us, is perhaps testimony to the failure of education in more places than the inner cities. The essential concept behind Trump’s foreign, and domestic, policy approach is that the government of the United States will force its will on everyone else. It will wall off its southern border, forcibly deport millions of people, wipe out the armies of ISIS, add new barriers to entry into the United States, increase intelligence gathering against huge sectors of the general population while, simultaneously, allowing the states to decide their own parochial and discriminatory education policies. Trump’s legion of supporters cheer at his every off-the-wall comment, applauding his willingness to say the unspeakable while often claiming that “he really doesn’t mean it, but I love that he’s saying it when no one else will.”

If Trump is truly giving voice to a new “silent majority” who believe that the past can be restored, the United States is in a deeply perilous state. Not for the reasons Trump recited in his convention acceptance speech, but because it portends an attempt to restore a society whose foundations were rife with inequity and that will be out of touch will the major influences of a 21st century world.

Where we go from here, I am not sure. I am pretty sure that the country is in more trouble than is widely recognized. Putting aside the astounding loss of productivity that massive poverty in the black community has stripped from the country, and putting aside the unknown but certainly real losses of serious genius among the oppressed population whose young often never have a real chance to rise above their circumstances, a condition of systematic repression of a massive segment of the population cannot endure indefinitely. We would all do well to remember the words of Shakespeare, in a different context, at the end of Romeo & Juliet:

“See what a scourge is laid upon your hate,

That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love!

And I, for winking at your discords, too

Have lost a brace of kinsmen. All are punished.”