Is College the Solution or the Problem? Power, Privilege & The Academy
“Why do we continue to invest our time, money, and intellectual works in the college and university system of the United States?” This is something I ask myself regularly. Is there any other way? What role do these institutions play in producing the inequalities we face as Black people in our country? Do we fully understand the impact that they have on our community’s most vulnerable populations? I think to sum up my thoughts is to suggest that the primary purpose of the academy, especially the elite colleges and universities in America, is to Manufacture and Re-Produce Privilege and Unequal Power. I suggest that, in their current state, they are ill-prepared to recognize, affirm, and carry forward the rich, beautiful, and limitless imaginative possibilities of our Black Youth.
To be completely clear about where I am coming from, I am a product of private education, recently middle class, graduated from a college considered prestigious and completed a graduate degree at a competitive graduate institution. Conversely, I have arrived at a point in my life where I willfully dissent from all of the above. I advocate for the protection and promotion of equitable public education above all else. I am not convinced that selective public and private schools are adequate or even ethical in serving the educational needs of our communities. I have benefitted disproportionately from this system of power and privilege, yet it is not in my interest to protect the institutions that gave me advantages at the expense of others.
To know privilege and power in a society with finite resources is to understand that one person’s advantage in this system is directly related to the detriment of others in less privileged positions. There is no such thing as “under-privileged”. It is too passive to adequately expose the active nature of oppression. People do not just happen to be without resources. Real people enact policies, create racial order, create economic inequality, segregate institutions of education, manufacture and take advantage of privilege under the guise of public education and professional development.
To put it simply, the poor subsidize the education and services of the middle and upper classes while they themselves lack access to these same institutions. I am indebted to the people who sacrificed for me to get to where I am today. Not a general homage to predecessors that walked this path, but rather a reawakened loyalty to the living-breathing poor people that are negatively affected by my exercise of privilege and power as it relates to higher education and social class. I am indebted to countless poor people in America whose tax dollars are funneled into my pockets via federal and state funds to subsidize my abundant educational opportunities as a privileged individual. Our government takes money from all people and provides opportunities only to a non-representative few. Sisters and brothers in Watts, Richmond, and Inglewood pay tax dollars that are funneled into elite state institutions that are unjustly inaccessible them.
I believe that these institutions, while shutting out poor people and people of color, enable and harbor the flight of people away from the problems and realities of poverty and segregation in America. Given the growing number of impoverished people in America and our global community, it is becoming less and less believable that the majority of people accepting these privileges (regardless of their background) are actually using their privileged education to turn the tide on exclusion and poverty. The current financial climate in our country may prove to breed self-interested, hyper-competitive proffesionals and academics that may not have the community investment of many of their predecessors.
I desire public educational institutions to be as non-discriminatory of its attendees as it is with its acceptance of tax dollars. This is not possible simply by pressing for better representation, no more than “getting out the vote” in poor communities is changing their material situation. We don’t need to paint the façade of the academy black and brown, we need to break it down, grapple with new ideas, and rebuild it. A system that is inherently flawed does not give way to justice by a change in representation alone. There is a need to shake the establishments to their very foundation to rid them of institutionalized and structural discrimination.
We cannot imagine all of a sudden that the institutions built to secure social and economic order and segregation are all of a sudden tools for positive change. Instead, I am questioning whether I myself as a student, servant, and activist am among the tools of segregation and oppression at the hands of the university. Specifically, I fear that my good intentions and service have adversely been used to grant legitimacy, support, and false credit to an undeserving institution that does not care to independently serve the poor folks who pay them tax dollars. Countless students who admirably work toward social justice and equality are being used as work horses by these institutions without compensation to provide educational services, health care, social welfare, and recruit students just to name a few.
Sure, I turned out okay, as many of us have. I gained opportunities, traveled, and developed skills that I would not have been the same without, but what I find difficult is the utter lack of opportunity for the majority of brothers and sisters in the continuously growing poor/working class. The university accepts money from all people, but accepts a small non-representative minority to attend. It then reluctantly sprinkles resources back into the community by way of free labor i.e. student volunteerism without becoming even marginally involved in day-to-day services. It’s like a large corporation that thrives year round on the detriment of poor people, but decides to have a day of service or charity to pay it back to the community, and only unpaid volunteers from the corporation show up to work.
But why stop there? We should also find it unacceptable that colleges and universities in this format are the only popularly viable options for the development of economic, social, and political capital in America. Surely there are other ways that we can assess, develop, and construct with the human capital that we have in our communities to build families, communities, schools, etc.
This is at the very heart of what I will argue over the next few pieces. I believe that with the passion, love, ingenuity, and legacy we have as a community, we can be the architects of a new paradigm for public education from the ground up. I’m asking that we set aside the arguments for representation and curriculum changes of the current system (reformative change) to engage in a discussion about developing a radically different, self-determined education system (revolutionary change).
And what better a population of architects for a new and improved equitable system than our Black Youth who have the ingenuity, the power, the intellect, and the spirit to flip, create, and bring to life a new way in education. This isn’t just flowery idealism. I will share concrete examples of what these self determined communities and institutions look like as they existed throughout our history and in our present day. Young brothers and sisters are already doing great work to pave the way for something greater in our future. We owe it to them to listen, affirm, and support.
Next Up: Highlighting Black Youth-led Movements in Los Angeles and New York