Wisdom of Sun Ra

Are you afraid? . . . What is it you want to know?
Do you want to know where the universe came from?
I’ll tell you.
At first there was nothing . . . then nothing turned itself inside out and became something.
Why don’t you turn yourself inside out?

– Sun Ra “Discipline 27 (Part 2)”  Concert for the Comet Kohoutek

For-Profit Colleges

This is as an issue I’ve been trying to keep an eye on.   There’s a Senate hearing scheduled for today on the for-profit college industry. I haven’t been able to sit down and really put together a coherent study on the subject, and unfortunately I don’t have much time to put together a thorough analysis of it right now, but I wanted to at least drop in and point to a few resources since this is coming up today.

PBS recently aired a Frontline documentary on the subject College, Inc.  (You can view the full program online)  It is definitely worth a look.

A few quick things worth mentioning here:

This sentence jumps out from today’s Inside Higher Ed Article :  “Between 2000 and 2009, the amount of Title IV federal aid — Pell grants, Stafford loans and all other aid administered by the Department of Education — going to for-profit institutions grew $4.6 billion to $26.5 billion.”  So, like other corporations, the for-profit schools rely on federal money to bolster their profits while simultaneously crowing about their superior financial efficiency.

As the College, Inc. documentary pointed out,  when students (read: “customers”) do not qualify for federal money, the for-profit schools are also offering commercial loans.  Keep in mind many of these schools will accept nearly anyone who wants to apply (and the documentary presents evidence that some schools have even taken up high pressure sales practices to get students to enroll).  What this means is you have the makings of another major debt crisis, a crisis in addition to the one already brewing for students at traditional colleges and universities drowning in loan debt.  (Guilty as charged!)   This stands out from today’s New York Times article about the hearing:

“One source of contention was the planned appearance at the hearings of Steven Eisman, a hedge fund manager known for having predicted the housing market crash. He has recently compared the for-profit college sector to the subprime mortgage banking industry — arguing that both grew rapidly based on lending to low-income people with little ability to repay the loans…His prepared testimony for the hearings repeats that theme, calling the for-profit colleges “marketing machines masquerading as universities.””

I think its important  to make a distinction between criticism of the for-profit schools themselves, and the students who choose to attend.  After all, most of them are only doing what we’ve all been told people should do:  Try to get an education to improve their lot in life.  The for-profit schools often appeal to students who are unable to attend  traditional colleges for academic or financial reasons.  (And I’m only using the term “traditional” because I don’t think “non-profit” quite applies either, and that’s a whole other angle to examine.)  There is a very real elitism built into  the way traditional colleges function, which is something the for-profits use  in their sales pitches to low-income students, and something they also use when they are called upon to defend the economic practices of their industry.

I’ll try to catch up with what goes on in the hearings and hopefully post some more thoughts in the next few days.

The University on Screen: The Top 10 Academic Films

(This article was first published in the GC Advocate in May 2010)

The cam­pus novel has been around in Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture for quite some time. Some crit­ics have pointed to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s first novel Fan­shawe, pub­lished in 1828, as the first piece of Amer­i­can fic­tion that deals with cam­pus life. More recently, British writer David Lodge has made a career out of pen­ning aca­d­e­mic nov­els with thinly veiled depic­tions of well known British and Amer­i­can uni­ver­si­ties, as well as fic­tional ver­sions of actual pro­fes­sors. (One recur­ring char­ac­ter in his nov­els, Mor­ris Zapp, is clearly based on lit­er­ary critic Stan­ley Fish, and Fish has appar­ently embraced the car­i­ca­ture.) Amer­i­can author Philip Roth has also writ­ten sev­eral nov­els set in acad­e­mia, two of which have been adapted into films. The aca­d­e­mic novel has even started to grab the atten­tion of lit­er­ary crit­ics in books such as Elaine Showalter’s Fac­ulty Tow­ers: The Aca­d­e­mic Novel and Its Dis­con­tents.

Like the aca­d­e­mic novel, the aca­d­e­mic film also pro­vides a venue for using the mimetic device of fic­tion to explore cer­tain aspects of higher edu­ca­tion. When most peo­ple think of Hollywood’s depic­tions of acad­e­mia they are more likely to think of frat-house come­dies such as Ani­mal House, Old School, and Amer­i­can Pie Presents The Naked Mile, or maybe sports films like Rudy, The Pro­gram, or Glory Road. How­ever, there have been sev­eral films made about the uni­ver­sity envi­ron­ment that go beyond fra­ter­nity par­ties and sports. In this par­tic­u­lar list I eval­u­ate some films that in some way try to address the mean­ing of higher edu­ca­tion. These films explore issues such as the pres­sures of achieve­ment, the promise of higher edu­ca­tion as a means of social mobil­ity, and the chal­lenges and joys of col­lege teach­ing. Henry Kissinger famously stated that “uni­ver­sity pol­i­tics are vicious pre­cisely because the stakes are so small.” That state­ment leaves many of us who work in acad­e­mia nod­ding our heads in recog­ni­tion. How­ever, these films sug­gest a dif­fer­ent story. They show the inter­ac­tion between “town and gown,” as stu­dents and pro­fes­sors encounter the com­mu­nity out­side of the cam­pus, with vary­ing results. They also illus­trate the evo­lu­tion of the Amer­i­can uni­ver­sity over the course of the 20th cen­tury. With legal mea­sures such as the G.I. Bill in 1944, and the Brown v. Board of Edu­ca­tion deci­sion of 1954, stu­dents from work­ing class back­grounds, women, and racial minori­ties have entered into insti­tu­tions of higher learn­ing in greater num­bers. The ten­sions cre­ated by those changes appear in sev­eral of these films. While these may not nec­es­sar­ily be the most art­fully made or com­pelling films over­all, I do think they are the ones that are the most com­mit­ted to tak­ing a seri­ous look at higher edu­ca­tion. Viewed crit­i­cally, they may even con­tribute to improv­ing our under­stand­ing of how insti­tu­tions of higher learn­ing fit into Amer­i­can life and culture.

10. The Human Stain (2003)
thehumanstain

This film is based on Philip Roth’s 2000 novel of the same name. Cole­man Silk (played by Anthony Hop­kins) is a clas­sics pro­fes­sor at the fic­tional New Eng­land school Athena Col­lege. Silk ends up being accused of dis­crim­i­na­tion by two black stu­dents after he makes a com­ment in class that gets mis­in­ter­preted as a racial slur. Through flash­backs to his early life, we dis­cover that Silk is actu­ally a fair-skinned black man born in New Jer­sey who left home after high school and decided to live the rest of his life “pass­ing” for white, which adds a thick layer of irony to the dis­crim­i­na­tion pro­ceed­ings. Roth’s novel was rep­re­sen­ta­tive of an obses­sion with “the cul­ture wars” in aca­d­e­mic nov­els of the 1990s. These nov­els are lit­tered with sto­ries of dis­crim­i­na­tion, sex­ual har­ras­ment and “polit­i­cal cor­rect­ness” on cam­pus. The film ver­sion of The Human Stain man­aged to keep some of that polit­i­cal con­tent in the story, while also sat­is­fy­ing the Hol­ly­wood appetite for tales of love and romance. In this case, Silk takes up with groundskeeper Fau­nia Far­ley (Nicole Kid­man) and their rela­tion­ship aggra­vates the scan­dals brew­ing around him. Many peo­ple quib­bled with the choice of Anthony Hop­kins as Silk (Went­worth Miller played the young ver­sion), but he turns in a solid per­for­mance. I was ready to dis­miss the glam­orous Nicole Kid­man as a col­lege groundskeeper, but she also gives the char­ac­ter believ­able depth. To devoted novel read­ers, films can never sat­isfy the nuances pos­si­ble in a long novel, but in this adap­ta­tion I thought the film­mak­ers made some good strate­gic choices about which parts of the novel to include to give it con­ti­nu­ity on screen.

9. School Daze (1988)
school daze

I can’t even pre­tend to be objec­tive about this one. In the sum­mer of 1996 I rented this film from the local Block­buster and pored over it in the days before I started my fresh­man year at More­house Col­lege, where direc­tor Spike Lee attended school, and where much of the film was shot. Many of the nation’s his­tor­i­cally black col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties (or HBCUs) were founded in the years fol­low­ing the civil war and eman­ci­pa­tion. The film’s open­ing mon­tage (accom­pa­nied by the famous More­house Glee Club) func­tions as sort of a photo essay that sit­u­ates the his­tory of black higher edu­ca­tion within the larger black polit­i­cal strug­gle in the US. “Mis­sion Col­lege” (and all the HBCUs that it is a stand in for) is rep­re­sented as the prod­uct of these years of polit­i­cal progress. School Daze fol­lows the exploits of a small clique of stu­dents over a long Home­com­ing Week­end. Lau­rence Fish­burne plays “Dap” the res­i­dent cam­pus rad­i­cal who wants the col­lege to take a stronger stance against apartheid in South Africa. The sto­ry­line calls atten­tion to the com­pli­cated social pol­i­tics of black col­leges where uni­ver­sity lead­ers sub­scribe to stuffy prin­ci­ples of respectabil­ity and uplift and thus dis­cour­age the kind of pro­gres­sive activism seen on major­ity white cam­puses. While School Daze rubbed some black col­lege alums the wrong way with its depic­tion of sex­u­al­ity, color con­scious­ness, gen­der pol­i­tics, and class elit­ism, the film helped to push black col­lege life into the Amer­i­can main­stream, and spawned the tele­vi­sion series A Dif­fer­ent World, with sev­eral cast mem­bers mov­ing on to star in the show.

8. Good Will Hunt­ing (1997)
goodwillhunting

Focus­ing on the story of a reluc­tant genius who works at MIT as a jan­i­tor, Good Will Hunt­ing explores, among other issues, the “town and gown” phe­nom­e­non which is par­tic­u­larly preva­lent in Boston with its con­cen­tra­tion of elite uni­ver­si­ties. (School Daze also explored this phe­nom­e­non in Atlanta in a hilar­i­ous encounter between Jheri-curled local Samuel L. Jack­son, and a group of ide­al­is­tic black col­lege stu­dents.) Will Hunt­ing is a jan­i­tor at MIT who is har­bor­ing a secret rare intel­lec­tual tal­ent beneath his tough South Boston exte­rior. Good Will Hunt­ing was one of those Oscar sea­son films, and it has its share of corny Oscar bait moments. For­tu­nately Robin Williams sal­vages it from com­plete sap with his poignant por­trayal of a psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor who fore­goes the cut­throat world of the research uni­ver­sity for teach­ing at a com­mu­nity col­lege. (Though com­mu­nity col­lege pro­fes­sors rarely have time to sit in the park hav­ing heart­felt one-on-one con­ver­sa­tions about life and love.) It was Robin Williams’s char­ac­ter who was finally able to get through to Will and con­vince him to make the best of his rare tal­ents. Though in usual Hol­ly­wood style the film devolves into just another banal story about how love con­quers all, and its fee­ble attempts at class pol­i­tics are under­cut by its depic­tion of Will as an almost super­hu­man tal­ent. How­ever, the film also explores the some­times fraught place of the uni­ver­sity as a val­i­dat­ing mech­a­nism for knowl­edge and tal­ent. And in his con­ver­sa­tions with Will, Williams’s char­ac­ter warns us against the excesses of intel­lec­tual arrogance.

7. Higher Learn­ing (1995)
Higher_Learning_(movie)

Higher Learn­ing, directed by Boyz in the Hood direc­tor John Sin­gle­ton, is an ensem­ble drama set in the fic­tional Colum­bus Uni­ver­sity in Cal­i­for­nia. The film takes an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to cam­pus issues includ­ing such hot but­ton top­ics as alco­holism, date rape, homo­sex­u­al­ity, racial balka­niza­tion, affir­ma­tive action and the exploita­tion of ath­letes. Ice Cube’s per­for­mance as the black mil­i­tant Fudge (replete with Afro and fist-pick) was espe­cially inspired. Fudge is a proud auto­di­dact who snubs his nose at the edu­ca­tional estab­lish­ment and embraces knowl­edge as a tool of lib­er­a­tion rather than a ticket to a job on the white man’s plan­ta­tion. In many ways his depic­tion is, right or wrong, a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the chip-on-their-shoulder arro­gance that some attribute to black stu­dents on major­ity white col­lege cam­puses in the affir­ma­tive action era. Ice Cube’s char­ac­ter rev­els in the role, and pushes the enve­lope by antag­o­niz­ing his white class­mates with all night par­ties and lec­tur­ing the young track star Omar Epps on how he is being exploited for his ath­letic tal­ents. Michael Rapa­port plays an awk­ward white kid from Idaho who is out of his depths at the school and gets taken in by Neo-Nazis who teach him of his true iden­tity as a white male vic­tim of mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism run amok. The shoot­ing spree that ensues hits a lit­tle too close to home given the spate of recent inci­dents of gun vio­lence on col­lege cam­puses and beyond. But then again, it’s just another exam­ple of John Sin­gle­ton hav­ing his fin­ger on the pulse of what’s hap­pen­ing in the nation.

6. The Paper Chase (1973)
thepaperchase

I sus­pect that ambi­tious pre-law grads on their way to Har­vard Law School have prob­a­bly watched this film the same way HBCU-bound stu­dents watch School Daze. The Paper Chase depicts the fierce, cut­throat world of the Ivy League law school. James Hart (played by Tim­o­thy Bot­toms) is a first year law stu­dent who finds him­self up against the uncom­pro­mis­ing law pro­fes­sor Charles King­field (played by John House­man who reprised the role in the spin-off tele­vi­sion series that played on cable in the 1980s). It turns out that the girl who Hart has the hots for just so hap­pens to be Kingsfield’s daugh­ter. The pres­sures of law school are brought home in the sto­ry­line of a class­mate who strug­gles to keep up while try­ing to bal­ance his rocky mar­riage and ends up threat­en­ing to com­mit sui­cide. Mean­while Kingsfield’s daugh­ter has seen enough of the insen­si­tive law stu­dents and mocks Hart’s lawyerly aspi­ra­tions. Between the strug­gles of his fel­low stu­dents and his fail­ure to win her over, Hart ques­tions his own com­mit­ment to the pro­fes­sion. The maudlin con­clu­sion to the film ends up being that thor­oughly Amer­i­can story of hav­ing your cake and eat­ing it too. You can be both a blood­thirsty lawyer and a sen­si­tive human­i­tar­ian! Nev­er­the­less, the film does illus­trate some of the per­ti­nent ques­tions law stu­dents face as they try to hold their own in a highly com­pet­i­tive field.

5. Sur­viv­ing Desire (1991)
Surviving-Desire

Sur­viv­ing Desire was directed by auteur Hal Hart­ley. I have to give props to my friend Robert Caputi (Adjunct Prof. of Soci­ol­ogy, BMCC) for telling me about the film and loan­ing me a VHS copy since the DVD ver­sion seems to be scarce. The film stars Mar­tin Dono­van as a col­lege lit­er­a­ture pro­fes­sor named Jude (a not-so-subtle shout out to Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure). Jude is infat­u­ated with his stu­dent Sofie, played by Mary B. Ward. Like Jude and Sue of Hardy’s novel, Jude and Sofie in Sur­viv­ing Desire are unable to resist the pas­sion of doomed love. Jude is an eccen­tric pro­fes­sor who is fas­ci­nated with the work of Dos­to­evsky and who aggra­vates his stu­dents by speak­ing in lit­er­ary quo­ta­tions and ask­ing open-ended ques­tions. Sofie is an ador­ing stu­dent who “gets” Jude, and responds to him when he starts to pur­sue her. Some might find the styl­ized intel­lec­tual dia­logue in the film a bit pre­ten­tious, but it is deliv­ered with a style and humor that makes it work. It is also worth men­tion­ing that the film is pack­aged with aHal Hart­ley short called “The­ory of Achieve­ment,” which is a rather prophetic early look at the cesspool of post-college pseudo-bohemian nar­cis­sism begin­ning to take form over in the old indus­trial lofts of Williams­burg, Brooklyn.

4. The Blue Angel (Der blaue Engel) (1930)
Annex - Dietrich, Marlene (Blue Angel, The)_02

The Blue Angel is best known as a star vehi­cle for Mar­lene Diet­rich and a vivid por­trayal of Weimar Germany’s deca­dent cabaret cul­ture. Pro­fes­sor Emmanuel Rath (Emil Jan­nings) is a strict and humor­less school­mas­ter who finds that some of his stu­dents are going to a local speakeasy called The Blue Angel. Hop­ing to catch the boys at the club, Pro­fes­sor Rath goes there him­self and ends up see­ing the viva­cious cabaret per­former Lola, played by Diet­rich in a per­for­mance that launched her into an inter­na­tional star. Rath’s story of being con­sumed by desire for Lola is a well-worn sto­ry­line in aca­d­e­mic fic­tions. The cere­bral uptight pro­fes­sor who has spent his entire life dis­ci­plin­ing the intel­lect finds him­self being led into ill-fated deci­sions by the pow­ers of desire and the fail­ures of the flesh. The film also shows the harsh judg­ments of moral­ism in the aca­d­e­mic com­mu­nity as the school admin­is­tra­tors denounce Rath for his rela­tion­ship with Lola, even though he intends to prop­erly marry her. Rath later leaves his posi­tion at the acad­emy and mar­ries Lola, but they soon run out of money, and things begin to spi­ral out of con­trol. Rath’s life ends in humil­i­a­tion and ruin after an awful night­club scene in his old col­lege town. He dies clench­ing the desk in the room where he once taught. The Blue Angel is actu­ally a link in a chain of aca­d­e­mic fic­tions. It is based on a 1905 Hein­rich Mann novel Pro­fes­sor Unrat. Also, Francine Prose’s aca­d­e­mic novel Blue Angel was inspired by the film, and fol­lows a sim­i­lar nar­ra­tive (with the temptress being a cre­ative writ­ing stu­dent instead of a cabaret per­former). Lastly, both the film and Prose’s book are name-checked in another aca­d­e­mic film, The Sav­ages (2007), fea­tur­ing Philip Sey­mour Hoff­man as a Brecht­ian the­ater professor.

3. Horse Feath­ers (1932)
HorseFeathers-Groucho

Pro­fes­sor Wagstaff (Grou­cho Marx): “The trou­ble is we’re neglect­ing foot­ball for education…Tomorrow we start tear­ing down the col­lege.”
The Pro­fes­sors: “But, Pro­fes­sor, where will the stu­dents sleep?”
Pro­fes­sor Wagstaff: “Where they always sleep. In the classroom!”

In Jan­u­ary 2010 the Uni­ver­sity of Alabama Crim­son Tide won col­lege football’s national title. Its head foot­ball coach, Nick Saban, makes over $4 mil­lion dol­lars a year at the state-run school. The high­est paid state employee in many states is usu­ally the uni­ver­sity foot­ball coach. As schools begin to lay­off teach­ers, deny tenure and rely on adjunct labor to teach its stu­dents, ath­letic bud­gets and salaries con­tinue to rise, and TV con­tracts and endorse­ments for col­lege sports get big­ger and big­ger. Given this state of affairs the Marx Broth­ers look like prophets for their 1932 satire Horse Feath­ers. Grou­cho Marx plays Pro­fes­sor Wagstaff at the fic­tional Dar­win Col­lege. The col­lege is prepar­ing for a show­down with rival Hux­ley Col­lege, and Pro­fes­sor Wagstaff hears that a cou­ple of “ringer” foot­ball play­ers might be avail­able for hire at the local speakeasy. The sto­ry­line is strik­ingly pre­scient. The acqui­si­tions of ringers in the guise of “student-athletes” is pretty much the norm in big time col­lege ath­let­ics these days. The foot­ball game at the end is a gem of absur­dist com­edy stunts, the most mem­o­rable being a touch­down scored by hop­ping on a horse-driven char­iot charg­ing down the field. The Marx Broth­ers’ satir­i­cal take on the uni­ver­sity and the excesses of col­lege sports def­i­nitely makes this a film worth recon­sid­er­ing in the cur­rent aca­d­e­mic climate.

2. Oleanna (1994)
Oleanna1

David Mamet directed this film adap­ta­tion of his con­tro­ver­sial play. Yes, it is about sex­ual harass­ment. But it is about much more than that. I’m con­vinced that few films have attempted to explore the mean­ing of higher edu­ca­tion with more inten­sity than Oleanna. The story is deliv­ered in a series of esca­lat­ing con­ver­sa­tions between the pro­fes­sor named John (William H. Macy), and the stu­dent named Carol (Debra Eisen­stadt). The stilted Mamet-speak that worked so well in Glen­garry Glenn Ross gets a bit aggra­vat­ing here, but stay with it. At the end of the first act is a delib­er­ately ambigu­ous inci­dent which Carol later uses to file a sex­ual harass­ment com­plaint against John. How­ever, the play has a mul­ti­lay­ered com­plex­ity that goes beyond a sim­ple issue of who’s right and who’s wrong. Their dia­logue began as a dis­cus­sion about her grade which turned into an exam­i­na­tion of the place of higher edu­ca­tion in Amer­i­can cul­ture, and the evolv­ing expec­ta­tions of stu­dents who spend increas­ing amounts of time and money to attend col­lege. The con­ceit of the film is that this dia­logue on edu­ca­tion ends up being swamped and over­taken by the sex­ual harass­ment drama. This mir­rors the way in which argu­ments over polit­i­cal cor­rect­ness, as nec­es­sary as they were in the 1980s and 1990s, diverted atten­tion away from the under­ly­ing sys­tem­atic changes tak­ing place in higher edu­ca­tion. The whole power rela­tion­ship between pro­fes­sor and stu­dent has changed, and John, who pos­tures as a sort of intel­lec­tual mav­er­ick, is obliv­i­ous to the ways that he is really just another con­de­scend­ing blowhard of the old school, try­ing to lec­ture his way out of the accu­sa­tions and con­stantly telling Carol to “sit down” while he explains things to her. As for Carol it is just as impor­tant that we see her as an enti­tled con­sumer of edu­ca­tion as she is a woman who has (or has not) been wronged, and part of her arro­gance comes from this newly dis­cov­ered power that she is able to wield.

1. Wit (2001)
wit emma thompson

 

Fair warn­ing: Wit is a bit of a downer. How­ever, beneath the sad story of the main character’s strug­gle with can­cer is a poignant tale about the mean­ing of the aca­d­e­mic life and the value of knowl­edge and intel­lec­tual pur­suit. From the begin­ning it becomes appar­ent that the main char­ac­ter, lit­er­a­ture pro­fes­sor Vivian Bear­ing (Emma Thomp­son) will not make it out alive, and the film takes us through her excru­ci­at­ing last days in the can­cer ward of a research hos­pi­tal. How­ever, Bear­ing faces death with, well, wit. Based on a Pulitzer Prize win­ning play by Mar­garet Edson, the HBO film (the title was W;t in the orig­i­nal play) fol­lows Vivian Bear­ing as she pre­pares to under­take treat­ment for ovar­ian can­cer. Bear­ing is a John Donne scholar, and the film weaves together the sig­nif­i­cance of Donne’s poetry and his exam­i­na­tion of death in Bearing’s own strug­gle as she finds her­self fac­ing the very thing she has spent her adult life study­ing. Bear­ing is a wel­come anti­dote to the dull parade of men behav­ing badly in the aca­d­e­mic fic­tions of Philip Roth, David Lodge, and their male cohorts. Too many of these nov­els reduce female schol­ars to either objects of lust or con­niv­ing shrews. Faced with ovar­ian can­cer and the bleak diag­no­sis that she will not sur­vive, Bear­ing agrees to par­tic­i­pate in a series of bru­tal treat­ments which will be of con­sid­er­able value to med­ical research. In a twist, the young doc­tor assigned to take care of her was a stu­dent in one her classes, which were known for being among the tough­est on cam­pus. As she begins her treat­ments she is briefed about the sever­ity of the treat­ments, and told that their find­ings will be a “sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tion to knowl­edge” about ovar­ian can­cer. Vivian’s response is that when it comes to the can­cer treat­ments and to the pur­suit of knowl­edge she will gladly take the full dose. Through­out the film, as the treat­ments become more excru­ci­at­ing, the phrase “full dose” becomes an affir­ma­tion of her com­mit­ment to the pur­suit of knowl­edge in the face of dif­fi­culty, pain, and loss.

Pictures of an Institution

(This article was first published in the GC Advocate in February 2010.)

Books Reviewed:

The Mar­ket­place of Ideas by Louis Menand. W. W. Nor­ton and Com­pany (2010).

The Great Amer­i­can Uni­ver­sity: Its Rise to Pre­em­i­nence, Its Indis­pens­able National Role, Why It Must Be Pro­tected by Jonathan R. Cole. Pub­lic Affairs (2010).

In Willa Cather’s 1925 novel The Professor’s House, God­frey St. Peter, a pro­fes­sor of his­tory at a Mid­west­ern uni­ver­sity, befriends Dr. Crane, a pro­fes­sor in the physics depart­ment at the same school (and men­tor to the novel’s tragic hero Tom Out­land). These two pro­fes­sors, one from the human­i­ties and one from the sci­ences, find a com­mon foe in what they see as the encroach­ment of indus­try and profit in the edu­ca­tional process, a phe­nom­e­non that threat­ens their goal of pro­duc­ing well-rounded, cul­ti­vated stu­dents. As Cather describes it: “His friend­ship with Crane had been a strange one. Out in the world they would almost cer­tainly have kept clear of each other; but in the uni­ver­sity they had fought together in a com­mon course. Both, with all their might, had resisted the new com­mer­cial­ism, the aim to ‘show results’ that was under­min­ing and vul­gar­iz­ing edu­ca­tion. The State Leg­is­la­ture and the board of Regents seemed deter­mined to make a trade school of the Uni­ver­sity.” That this appears in a novel pub­lished in 1925 is some indi­ca­tion of how long there has been this per­sis­tent anx­i­ety over the aims of higher edu­ca­tion, and the fear that mar­ket forces were cor­rupt­ing the val­ues of insti­tu­tions of higher learn­ing. (In The Professor’s House these forces of profit play a major role in the story, as the sci­en­tific dis­cov­ery of the deceased intel­lec­tual prodigy Tom Out­land ends up being patented and used to fund the lux­u­ri­ous lifestyle of St. Peter’s unscrupu­lous son-in-law.)

One won­ders what Pro­fes­sors St. Peter and Crane would think of today’s uni­ver­si­ties with their power rank­ings, out­sized ath­letic pro­grams, and stu­dents who resem­ble not so much pupils as cus­tomers (who are always right!). And that’s not to men­tion the rise of for-profit con­glom­er­ates like the Uni­ver­sity of Phoenix. Louis Menand’s The Mar­ket­place of Ideas and Jonathan R. Cole’s The Great Amer­i­can Uni­ver­sity, are two recent works on higher edu­ca­tion which attempt to make sense of where the nation’s col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties are today, what makes them work or not work, and what chal­lenges lie ahead for Amer­i­can higher edu­ca­tion in the com­ing years.

Before tak­ing his cur­rent posi­tion as the Bass Pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish at Har­vard, where he has been since 2003, Louis Menand taught here in the Grad­u­ate Center’s Eng­lish depart­ment. His newest book, The Mar­ket­place of Ideas: Reform and Resis­tance in the Amer­i­can Uni­ver­sity, is part of W. W. Norton’s Issues of Our Time series edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Menand men­tions that he served on a com­mit­tee to re-develop Har­vard College’s Gen­eral Edu­ca­tion cur­ricu­lum, and this had no small part in inspir­ing the book, which exam­ines the his­tory of higher edu­ca­tion, ideas about appro­pri­ate cur­ricu­lum, and the state of grad­u­ate edu­ca­tion at the cur­rent moment. Com­ing from a dif­fer­ent angle is Jonathan R. Cole’s The Great Amer­i­can Uni­ver­sity: Its Rise to Pre­em­i­nence, Its Indis­pens­able National Role, Why It Must Be Pro­tected. Cole is a soci­ol­o­gist by train­ing and served as the Provost and Dean of Fac­ul­ties at Colum­bia Uni­ver­sity from 1989 to 2003. In this book, Cole exam­ines the nation’s largest and most pres­ti­gious research uni­ver­si­ties, shows why the United States is the unequiv­o­cal world leader in aca­d­e­mic research, and argues that this sta­tus could be threat­ened by lim­i­ta­tions on research and inquiry put in place in the past eight years.

As you may have gath­ered from the lit­er­ary ref­er­ence that began this review, my own alle­giances are in the human­i­ties. I am a stu­dent in the Eng­lish depart­ment here at the Grad­u­ate Cen­ter, and my dis­ser­ta­tion project is on aca­d­e­mic nov­els such as Cather’s The Professor’s House and Ran­dall Jarrell’s Pic­tures from an Insti­tu­tion, exam­in­ing them in the con­text of the his­tory of Amer­i­can higher edu­ca­tion. All of us in this pro­fes­sion encounter debates around higher edu­ca­tion and pol­icy in some form. Though it is impos­si­ble to keep up with every arti­cle, trend, and debate, we all read our share of pieces from The Chron­i­cle of Higher Edu­ca­tion and InsideHigherEd.com. How­ever, my work on this dis­ser­ta­tion has led me to dive head­first into the volu­mi­nous field of higher edu­ca­tion his­tory. I soon found myself drown­ing in a sea of mono­graphs full of over­lap­ping infor­ma­tion, murky sta­tis­ti­cal claims, and con­fus­ing, con­vo­luted his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tives about the ori­gins and tra­jec­tory of America’s insti­tu­tions of higher edu­ca­tion and all of the admin­is­tra­tive per­son­al­i­ties that have shaped the field. Com­pli­cat­ing mat­ters even more is the fact that the Amer­i­can col­le­giate sys­tem is not really a “sys­tem’ at all, but a loose net­work of degree grant­ing insti­tu­tions. On the up side, this allows for a won­der­ful diver­sity of insti­tu­tions and approaches. Accord­ing to Cole, there are roughly 4,300 dif­fer­ent insti­tu­tions of higher learn­ing grant­ing degrees in the United States today. Ulti­mately, that vari­ety is an asset that allows stu­dents of var­i­ous abil­i­ties, back­grounds and inter­ests to choose among a plethora of options. We now have small lib­eral arts col­leges like Berea Col­lege in Ken­tucky, a school known for its inno­v­a­tive financ­ing which does not charge its stu­dents tuition. We have mas­sive pub­lic state col­leges like Ohio State Uni­ver­sity which, while located in Colum­bus, func­tions like a whole city unto itself. And we also have unique insti­tu­tions with spe­cific his­tor­i­cal mis­sions such as my alma mater, More­house Col­lege, the nation’s only all-male his­tor­i­cally black col­lege. Cole’s num­ber of 4,300 also includes the hun­dreds of com­mu­nity col­leges spread out across the coun­try. But how does one begin to doc­u­ment and quan­tify the out­comes of edu­ca­tion given all these dis­parate insti­tu­tions and their assorted cur­ric­ula? How do you com­pile a his­tory of Amer­i­can higher edu­ca­tion in such a way that it gives us a lan­guage for assess­ing the suc­cess and fail­ures of edu­ca­tion and pro­vides some ground­ing to make the appro­pri­ate changes to ensure that these insti­tu­tions remain com­pet­i­tive in the 21st cen­tury? Some schol­ars have taken an insti­tu­tional approach, exam­in­ing the his­tory of one par­tic­u­lar insti­tu­tion and its admin­is­tra­tive deci­sions about cur­ricu­lum. Other his­to­ri­ans have attempted sweep­ing his­tor­i­cal sur­veys of Amer­i­can higher edu­ca­tion as a whole, and the library shelves groan under the weight of these tomes, many clock­ing in at 500 pages or more.

In The Mar­ket­place of Ideas, Menand nar­rows his empha­sis to a set of par­tic­u­lar issues, but in the process pro­vides a use­ful overview of Amer­i­can higher edu­ca­tion. The book is orga­nized into three essays exam­in­ing three par­tic­u­lar issues in higher edu­ca­tion: 1) the his­tory of the gen­eral edu­ca­tion cur­ricu­lum, 2) the logic of aca­d­e­mic dis­ci­plines and the allure of “inter­dis­ci­pli­nar­ity” as a buzz­word in acad­e­mia, and 3) the pol­i­tics of pro­fes­sors and the aca­d­e­mic labor mar­ket. Menand’s writ­ing style may seem decep­tively sim­ple — the book clocks in at a slim 174 pages — but in the course of pre­sent­ing the back­ground on these top­ics Menand also does a mas­ter­ful job of tam­ing and syn­the­siz­ing over a century’s worth of schol­ar­ship on higher edu­ca­tion. To boil all that down to an acces­si­ble nar­ra­tive requires some gen­er­al­iza­tions, and there are many in The Mar­ket­place of Ideas. But Menand has picked his reduc­tionisms wisely and his attempt to fash­ion a coher­ent nar­ra­tive out of all of this his­tory is in itself a use­ful exer­cise that will allow schol­ars to reeval­u­ate some of the cen­tral themes in the his­tory of Amer­i­can higher education.

One of the most strik­ing con­cepts that jumps out of the book’s sec­ond sec­tion is his insis­tence on label­ing the years between 1945 and 1975 as the “Golden Age of Acad­e­mia,” a period dur­ing which “the num­ber of Amer­i­can under­grad­u­ates increased by almost 500 per­cent and the num­ber of grad­u­ate stu­dents increased by nearly 900 per­cent.” This is a level of growth that will likely never be sur­passed. Higher edu­ca­tion con­tin­ued to grow after 1975 but at a much slower rate. The Golden Age began with the end of World War II and the intro­duc­tion of the G.I. Bill, and lasted until the finan­cial tur­moil of the 1970s. The G.I. Bill is per­haps the sin­gle most impor­tant piece of leg­is­la­tion in the his­tory of Amer­i­can higher edu­ca­tion. It extended what was once a priv­i­lege reserved for chil­dren of the wealthy to thou­sands of work­ing class vet­er­ans. These mea­sures have rad­i­cally reshaped the look, feel and size of America’s colleges.

No doubt many of my peers approach­ing the job mar­ket will want to skip ahead to the third sec­tion titled “Why Do Pro­fes­sors All Think Alike.” Here Menand con­fronts the well-worn con­ser­v­a­tive gripe against a left­ist bias in higher edu­ca­tion, espe­cially in the human­i­ties where mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism and pop cul­ture have allegedly replaced the sober study of West­ern Civ­i­liza­tion and its great­ness. Menand dis­man­tles this argu­ment by cit­ing sur­veys that show that the acad­emy does in fact lean lib­eral, but it does so across dis­ci­pli­nary lines, includ­ing in the sci­ences, and that within that umbrella of “lib­eral” is a vari­ety of polit­i­cal and reli­gious per­spec­tives. How­ever, Menand acknowl­edges that “the pol­i­tics of the pro­fes­so­ri­ate is homoge­nous,” and goes on to argue that this homo­gene­ity is rooted in how acad­e­mia trains and hires its pro­fes­sors. While I don’t think Menand’s expla­na­tion is con­vinc­ing his dis­cus­sion of aca­d­e­mic labor is worth a look less for its inter­ven­tion into the cul­ture wars and more for his exam­i­na­tion of the “time to degree” which has blown wildly out of pro­por­tion. For instance, a typ­i­cal grad­u­ate stu­dent in Eng­lish will spend roughly ten years earn­ing a doc­toral degree. Other human­i­ties fields have com­pa­ra­ble num­bers. This is an unnec­es­sary and sadis­tic sys­tem. Menand pro­poses that the human­i­ties Ph.D. should be stream­lined in the way that pro­grams in med­i­cine, law and busi­ness are admin­is­tered, with a set num­ber of years and clearer pro­gram require­ments. The length of the Ph.D. pro­gram pro­hibits many stu­dents from con­sid­er­ing the process at all. Short­en­ing the time to degree would make grad­u­ate edu­ca­tion seem less daunt­ing for col­lege grad­u­ates from mod­est eco­nomic back­grounds who may have already sac­ri­ficed greatly just to get an under­grad­u­ate degree and who may be inter­ested in earn­ing a Ph.D. but unable and unwill­ing to endure its length and cost.

As for the labor mar­ket itself, Menand writes that “There is a sense in which the sys­tem is now designed to pro­duce ABDs.” These ABDs have increas­ingly served as the cheap labor force for teach­ing under­grad­u­ate stu­dents. In recent years we have seen a grad­u­ate stu­dent union­iza­tion move­ment nec­es­sary to coun­ter­act uni­ver­si­ties using grad­u­ate stu­dents to teach under­grad­u­ate courses, even the upper-level ones once reserved for tenured fac­ulty. (I first typed in “full-time fac­ulty,” but many adjuncts are teach­ing full-time, which is pre­cisely one of the prob­lems.) Menand does not go far enough in indict­ing the exploita­tion of the cur­rent adjunct teach­ing sys­tem. And one won­ders if this sys­tem of con­tin­gent labor has any chance of being stopped. Now with the rise of for-profit schools and the preva­lence of cor­po­rate man­age­ment in higher edu­ca­tion becom­ing the norm, the sit­u­a­tion con­tin­ues to look bleak. Nev­er­the­less, Menand pro­vides some ammu­ni­tion against the usual nar­ra­tive of an “over­pro­duc­tion of Ph.D.s.” Marc Bousquet’s book How the Uni­ver­sity Works and his blog of the same name, also con­tests the “over­pro­duc­tion” the­sis, show­ing that the demand for teach­ing is actu­ally higher with more stu­dents enrolling in col­lege each year, and that adjuncts are being slammed with larger class sizes. The ques­tion of “over­pro­duc­tion” must be seen in light of the growth of adjunct­ing as the default teach­ing model for the humanities.

At first glance the hefty 660 pages of Jonathan Cole’s The Great Amer­i­can Uni­ver­sity appears to be exactly the kind of dense, fore­bod­ing book I described ear­lier that makes up the canon of higher edu­ca­tion his­tory. And to some degree it is. But Cole has done an exem­plary job of mak­ing the nar­ra­tive rel­a­tively acces­si­ble despite the volu­mi­nous sta­tis­ti­cal data and flurry of emi­nent names that bog the book down at times. Cole has spent most of his life at Colum­bia where he earned his under­grad­u­ate and grad­u­ate degrees in soci­ol­ogy, and later served as provost for four­teen years until 2003. His focus in the book is, well, uni­ver­si­ties like Colum­bia. Cole iden­ti­fies about 260 insti­tu­tions that now claim to be research uni­ver­si­ties and nar­rows his focus to the 100+ that sit at the top of the list.

The first sec­tion of the book chron­i­cles the his­tory of the nation’s ear­li­est insti­tu­tions of higher learn­ing and exam­ines how these colo­nial col­leges evolved into major research uni­ver­si­ties over the years. Long story short, by 2001 the United States has pro­duced a third of the world’s sci­ence and engi­neer­ing arti­cles in ref­er­eed jour­nals, and in three of the past four years Amer­i­can aca­d­e­mics have received a major­ity of the Nobel prizes for sci­ence and eco­nom­ics. The Amer­i­can uni­ver­sity sys­tem, like the nation itself, has firm roots in Eng­land, but Cole also describes how Amer­i­can insti­tu­tions bor­rowed from the Ger­man model of the 19th cen­tury, with its com­bi­na­tion of research and teach­ing. Ger­many is a key part of Cole’s con­clu­sions in the book. Cole returns to the his­tory of Nazi Ger­many in the 20th cen­tury to demon­strate how repres­sion of free inquiry dam­aged Germany’s stand­ing as the site of the world’s most com­pet­i­tive research insti­tu­tions, dri­ving tal­ented aca­d­e­mics in Ger­many and Aus­tria to Amer­i­can uni­ver­si­ties where they helped these insti­tu­tions to flour­ish. The sec­ond part of the book details the spe­cific dis­cov­er­ies and inno­va­tions that have orig­i­nated in Amer­i­can research uni­ver­si­ties — things such as the bar code, con­ges­tion pric­ing for traf­fic, and even the Inter­net itself. The third part out­lines what Cole sees as a poten­tial threat to the Amer­i­can research uni­ver­sity — the squelch­ing of aca­d­e­mic free­dom and sci­en­tific inquiry — espe­cially that which took place under the eight long years of the Bush presidency.

Cole sounds opti­mistic that the Barack Obama admin­is­tra­tion will restore sci­ence to its right­ful place in our research insti­tu­tions and restore some of the restric­tions put in place by George W. Bush’s flat-earth approach to sci­en­tific knowl­edge. In his most recent State of the Union address, Obama at least men­tioned the impor­tance of sci­ence edu­ca­tion (as well as fund­ing for com­mu­nity col­leges). But Cole is leery of the dam­age done by the recent finan­cial crises, and in this regard the Obama admin­is­tra­tion has already been a major dis­ap­point­ment (for any­one not on the board of Gold­man Sachs that is). This, in fact, raises a loom­ing ques­tion about Cole’s own study. He iden­ti­fies a num­ber of inno­va­tions in sci­ence and eco­nom­ics as well as the social sci­ences and human­i­ties, and cheer­leads for the good­ness of America’s insti­tu­tions of higher learn­ing. But I was also left won­der­ing as to the extent that these same elite insti­tu­tions and their depart­ments of eco­nom­ics and busi­ness were the breed­ing grounds for the very poli­cies that have left all of us in finan­cial tur­moil and threat­ened the oppor­tu­ni­ties for a gen­er­a­tion of young Amer­i­cans whose fam­i­lies may no longer be able to afford col­lege at all. Ulti­mately, it is this relent­less push for prof­its and a con­tin­ued faith in cor­po­ra­ti­za­tion and finance cap­i­tal to solve all our prob­lems that is chang­ing insti­tu­tions of higher edu­ca­tion, includ­ing the way they teach stu­dents, and how they train and hire fac­ulty. Nei­ther of these books seems inter­ested in chal­leng­ing cor­po­ra­ti­za­tion of higher edu­ca­tion at the ide­o­log­i­cal level (not that they need to do so as sev­eral other books and many arti­cles have already tread over that ground). But what they have both done is map out the cur­rent ter­rain of the Amer­i­can uni­ver­sity in ways that will help us to under­stand how to ensure that in the rest of the 21st cen­tury, the nation’s col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties main­tain high stan­dards of achieve­ment, and con­tinue to be a force for good.

Marcus Garvey and Black Solidarity in the 21st Century

(This article was first published in the GC Advocate in December 2008)

 

Books Reviewed:

Grant, Colin. Negro With a Hat: The Rise and Fall of Mar­cus Gar­vey. Oxford: Oxford Uni­ver­sity Press, 2008. 544 pages.

Rolin­son, Mary G. Grass­roots Gar­vey­ism: The Uni­ver­sal Negro Improve­ment Asso­ci­a­tion in the Rural South, 1920 – 1927. Chapel Hill: Uni­ver­sity of North Car­olina Press, 2007. 296 pages.

Shelby, Tom­mie. We Who Are Dark: The Philo­soph­i­cal Foun­da­tions of Black Sol­i­dar­ity. Cam­bridge: Har­vard U. Press, 2005. 336 pages.

As a walk­ing tour guide I often lead tours through Harlem, telling the story of how this his­toric neigh­bor­hood rose to promi­nence in the 1920s to become the unof­fi­cial cap­i­tal of black Amer­ica. Among the stops along the tour route is a brown store­front build­ing at 2305 Adam Clay­ton Pow­ell Jr. Blvd. (for­merly Sev­enth Avenue). Now an unas­sum­ing beauty shop called Salon Ambiance, it was once an office of Mar­cus Garvey’s Uni­ver­sal Negro Improve­ment Asso­ci­a­tion (UNIA), and the organization’s news­pa­per the Negro World. On a recent tour with a group of young white British women, we stopped in front of Salon Ambiance and I launched into my stan­dard abridged his­tory of Gar­vey and his move­ment. While I spoke I passed around a lam­i­nated photo of Gar­vey decked out in mil­i­tary regalia with his dis­tinc­tive plumed hat, rid­ing in the back of a car in a UNIA parade. One of the women stared at the photo and her face grew vis­i­bly unset­tled as I explained Garvey’s rise to power. I told them that he was born in Jamaica in 1887, that as a young man he had embraced Pan-Africanism, that he had come to Harlem in 1916 preach­ing a gospel of black pride and self-determination, and that he had built this mil­i­tant black nation­al­ist orga­ni­za­tion into one of largest mass move­ments in Amer­i­can his­tory. After I fin­ished my spiel, the trou­bled woman softly said, in her lilt­ing British accent, “He sounds a bit scary.”

If Gar­vey can strike fear into the heart of a gen­teel white woman eighty years removed, imag­ine what it was like to see thou­sands of Gar­veyites march­ing in the streets of New York with their Black Cross Nurses, their African Legion para­mil­i­tary guard decked out in full mil­i­tary dress, led by a dark, sawed-off, stout Jamaican who dared to tell black peo­ple that they were not a group of grov­el­ing sub­servients but a “Mighty Race” of peo­ple whose des­tiny was to rule the world. Well, J. Edgar Hoover also found that image quite “scary.” Within just three years of his arrival in Harlem, Garvey’s UNIA had grown large enough and pow­er­ful enough to attract the atten­tion of the United States Jus­tice Department’s newly formed Bureau of Inves­ti­ga­tion (BOI), headed up by Hoover, the leader who over­saw the agency’s tran­si­tion into the Fed­eral Bureau of Inves­ti­ga­tion (FBI).

With Negro With a Hat: The Rise and Fall of Mar­cus Gar­vey (2008) Jamaican-British scholar Colin Grant has filled a siz­able void in black stud­ies with a full-length com­pre­hen­sive biog­ra­phy of Gar­vey. Until I began com­pil­ing an oral exam list on black nation­al­ist thought two years ago, it had not occurred to me that such a book did not exist. David E. Cronon’s Black Moses, orig­i­nally pub­lished in 1960, still holds up as an engag­ing nar­ra­tive of the Garvey’s life, but its infor­ma­tion is now largely out­dated. Tony Martin’s Race First (1976) and Lit­er­ary Gar­vey­ism (1983) are both thor­ough and note­wor­thy con­tri­bu­tions to the intel­lec­tual aspects of Gar­vey­ism. The chief source of pri­mary mate­r­ial on Gar­vey is Robert E. Hill’s mas­sive Gar­vey Papers Project, pub­lished in ten huge bound vol­umes, with an archive housed at the Uni­ver­sity of California-Los Ange­les. Grant has incor­po­rated these and other resources (includ­ing the files of FBI infor­mants who infil­trated the UNIA, the first black agents hired in FBI his­tory) and has pro­vided the most well-synthesized account of Garvey’s life to date.

While Grant’s study focuses on the man him­self, Mary Rolinson’s Grass­roots Gar­vey­ism: The Uni­ver­sal Negro Improve­ment Asso­ci­a­tion in the Rural South, 1920 – 1927 (2007) gives, per­haps, an even bet­ter view of the over­all struc­ture of the UNIA by pro­vid­ing a closer look at some of the peo­ple who decided to join Garvey’s move­ment in the Amer­i­can South. The sep­a­ratist racial pol­i­tics of Garvey’s move­ment remain as con­tro­ver­sial as ever, and many see Garvey’s black nation­al­ism as an out­moded and inef­fec­tual strat­egy for deal­ing with the chal­lenges of our con­tem­po­rary polit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion. In We Who Are Dark: The Philo­soph­i­cal Foun­da­tions of Sol­i­dar­ity (2008) philoso­pher Tom­mie Shelby ana­lyzes black nation­al­ist thought sym­pa­thet­i­cally, but ulti­mately looks for less rigid and more polit­i­cally prac­ti­cal forms of black solidarity.

Mar­cus Mosiah Gar­vey, Jr. was born August 17, 1887 in St. Ann’s Bay on the north­ern coast of Jamaica. The youngest of eleven chil­dren, Gar­vey grew up in a very lit­er­ate house­hold. His father was an avid reader, and the fam­ily had an exten­sive library which the young Gar­vey used to his intel­lec­tual advan­tage. At the age of four­teen, Gar­vey left school and became a printer’s appren­tice, a vitally impor­tant expe­ri­ence for the future leader. It was here that Gar­vey began a life­long inter­est in news­pa­per pub­lish­ing. After mov­ing to Lon­don in 1912, Gar­vey ended up work­ing for Egyptian-born Dusé Mohamed Ali’s influ­en­tial pan-African paper, African Times and Ori­ent Review. Accord­ing to Grant he gleaned just as much from Ali’s numer­ous other busi­ness schemes as he did about the work­ings of the news­pa­per indus­try itself. The one con­sis­tent enter­prise that Gar­vey always came back to through­out his life was the news­pa­per, from the suc­cess of the UNIA’s Negro World in spread­ing the mes­sage of the move­ment, to the bit­ter edi­to­ri­als in The Black Man which he pub­lished in Lon­don in the 1930s after his depor­ta­tion from the United States.

Colin Grant begins Negro With a Hat by relat­ing the story of Garvey’s death. And, in the sort of cos­mic irony that would seem too trite were it fic­tional, it would be a news­pa­per head­line that led to his death. Recov­er­ing from a debil­i­tat­ing stroke in his Lon­don home in 1940, Gar­vey was shown clip­pings announc­ing that “Mar­cus Gar­vey Dies in Lon­don.” An old polit­i­cal rival had begun spread­ing rumors of his death and the pre­ma­ture obit­u­ar­ies were filled with damn­ing and unflat­ter­ing por­tray­als of his life. Gar­vey, dis­traught over these vicious accounts, col­lapsed from another mas­sive stroke while read­ing them. He died two weeks later on June 10, 1940.

In 1914 Gar­vey first attempted to start The Uni­ver­sal Negro Improve­ment Asso­ci­a­tion and African Com­mu­ni­ties League (UNIA_ACL) in Jamaica when he returned there after trav­el­ing for two years in Lon­don. The organization’s motto was, and remains, “One God, One Aim, One Des­tiny.” (The UNIA-ACL tech­ni­cally still exists though its mem­ber­ship is small.) In 1916, like scores of other West Indian immi­grants, he trav­eled to Harlem, which was quickly becom­ing a thriv­ing black metrop­o­lis. Thou­sands of black migrants from the Amer­i­can South and immi­grants from the West Indies were pour­ing into the neigh­bor­hood and cre­at­ing a vibrant mod­ern urban black cul­ture. In 1918 Gar­vey set up a new ver­sion of the UNIA which grew and thrived. Gar­vey had already been prac­tic­ing his skills as an ora­tor while in Lon­don on Speaker’s Cor­ner in Hyde Park. In New York he honed his skills by observ­ing the pyrotech­nics of white evan­ge­list Billy Sun­day. He also drew inspi­ra­tion from Harlem’s own plethora of lively pub­lic speak­ers, includ­ing the black social­ist Hubert Har­ri­son who gave Gar­vey his first speak­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties. Gar­vey per­fected his style and brought it to Harlem’s ver­sion of Speak­ers’ Cor­ner, on 135th St. and Lenox, where he even­tu­ally began to draw crowds with his incen­di­ary speeches.

Grant does a remark­able job of weav­ing Garvey’s ascen­dance into the his­tor­i­cal con­text of early-20th-century Amer­ica. Gar­vey stepped into a per­fect storm stirred by Harlem’s growth as a cul­tural and intel­lec­tual cap­i­tal of black­ness, the return of black sol­diers from WWI bat­tle­fields back to the Jim Crow south, and the con­tin­u­ing white suprema­cist racial vio­lence car­ried out on the black com­mu­nity in the South. Garvey’s ideas about racial sep­a­ra­tion were influ­enced by the awful vio­lence of the East St. Louis, Illi­nois race riot of 1917, in which nearly 200 peo­ple were killed and thou­sands dri­ven out of their homes. Led by Garvey’s soon to be rival, the scholar and activist W.E.B. Du Bois, The National Asso­ci­a­tion for the Advance­ment of Col­ored Peo­ple (NAACP) con­ducted a silent protest march through the streets of Harlem in response to the riots, car­ry­ing signs say­ing “Thou Shalt Not Kill.” By the time of the vio­lence of the Red Sum­mer of 1919 two years later, Gar­vey had per­fected his brand of mil­i­tant black pride, and had effec­tively estab­lished his move­ment as an alter­na­tive to the NAACP’s peace­ful marches and phi­los­o­phy of inte­gra­tion. It should be noted here that Grant takes his title from Du Bois’s deri­sive descrip­tion of Gar­vey, a clumsy and even off-putting choice. But it does speak to the bit­ter rivalry between the two lead­ers and the impor­tance of the dif­fer­ences (and con­tra­dic­tions) in their polit­i­cal philosophies.

With a con­sis­tently grow­ing mem­ber­ship, the UNIA engaged in a num­ber of eco­nomic enter­prises, and Grant gives detailed accounts of these ven­tures, many of which were unfor­tu­nately rife with mis­man­age­ment. Of all the Gar­vey projects, the Black Star Line may be the most defin­i­tive state­ment on Garvey’s enig­matic career. After pur­chas­ing an old WWI coal ship, The SS Yarmouth, Gar­vey planned to rechris­ten it as the Fred­er­ick Dou­glass and make it the first ship in The Black Star Line, a fleet of UNIA owned and oper­ated ships that would, among other func­tions, carry peo­ple to the African con­ti­nent. Gar­vey man­aged to orches­trate a rous­ing and rau­cous launch cel­e­bra­tion with thou­sands of peo­ple gath­ered on Manhattan’s west side at 135th St. near the Hud­son River to watch it set sail. But due to com­pli­cated issues with the ship’s insur­ance it was only allowed to sail out of view of the cheer­ing throngs, then docked again at 23rd Street. The Black Star Line was pro­moted with the idea that those who invested might one day be able to repa­tri­ate in Africa (“Africa for the Africans!”)…but Gar­vey him­self never set foot on the continent.

In the end, Gar­vey was brought low by the Black Star Line, nailed on a tech­ni­cal­ity by an FBI cam­paign bent on stop­ping his move­ment. He was arrested in 1922 for mail fraud in con­nec­tion with the sale of stock in the com­pany. Gar­vey rep­re­sented him­self in the gru­el­ing four week long court case, lost the case, and begin­ning in 1925 he served two years in jail in Atlanta, GA. He was even­tu­ally par­doned by Pres­i­dent Calvin Coolidge, but depor­ta­tion was one of the con­di­tions of the par­don and he sailed back to Jamaica from New Orleans in 1927. Still, what­ever one might say about Mar­cus Gar­vey, Grant’s biog­ra­phy makes it dif­fi­cult to write him off sim­ply as a char­la­tan. It paints the por­trait of a man who was equal parts sin­cer­ity, huck­ster­ism and delu­sional ambi­tion, illu­mi­nat­ing Garvey’s dogged per­sis­tence and deter­mi­na­tion to do some­thing big with his life. Through fail­ure after fail­ure, and set­back after set­back, Gar­vey held fast to a single-minded com­mit­ment to success.

In some ways his­to­rian Mary Rolinson’s Grass­roots Gar­vey­ism: The Uni­ver­sal Negro Improve­ment Asso­ci­a­tion in the Rural South, 1920 – 1927 pro­vides us with a bet­ter under­stand­ing of Gar­vey­ism as a “mass move­ment” than Negro With a Hat. While Grant’s work is mostly a focused char­ac­ter study, Rolin­son tries to make sense of the moti­va­tions and ideas of the peo­ple who joined the ranks of the orga­ni­za­tion by focus­ing on a par­tic­u­lar sub­set of UNIA mem­bers. Grass­roots Gar­vey­ism pro­vides some rare and insight­ful research on Garvey’s influ­ence among black South­ern­ers. As she argues, “a closer look at this seg­ment of Gar­veyites offers not only a glimpse into the elu­sive intel­lec­tual his­tory of rural south­ern farm­ers but also a fuller under­stand­ing of the dynam­ics and nature of Gar­vey­ism.” There were 1, 176 divi­sions of the UNIA through­out the world by 1926. Eighty per­cent of these were in the United States. Of the U.S. chap­ters Rolin­son places 423 of these in the South­ern States. Def­i­nite num­bers are hard to come by, but Rolin­son finds records for over 9,000 actual pay­ing mem­bers. How­ever, she coun­ter­bal­ances that num­ber with crowd esti­mates of peo­ple who attended pro-Garvey mass meet­ings all over the South over the course of his arrest and trial, esti­mates which sug­gest over 100,000 peo­ple may have been in atten­dance. She culled demo­graphic infor­ma­tion about the UNIA mem­bers from cen­sus records, and her inter­pre­ta­tions of the south­ern UNIA is informed by care­ful read­ings of the Negro World for reports of south­ern activ­ity. The nature of her research meant Rolin­son had to rely heav­ily on con­jec­ture, but she does a com­mend­able job bal­anc­ing this pri­mary research with informed speculations.

What she finds is that more than a few rural south­ern­ers embraced Garvey’s move­ment in the South. In the process she com­pli­cates the stan­dard nar­ra­tive of the Great Migra­tion, which car­ries the assump­tion that the most mil­i­tant and intel­lec­tu­ally engaged blacks moved to the North­ern cities, and that rad­i­cal­iza­tion was only pos­si­ble by mov­ing to the freer spaces of the urban North. On the con­trary, she illus­trates a rich his­tory of polit­i­cal engage­ment and rad­i­cal defi­ance hap­pen­ing under the radar in the South. The premise of the book, she writes, is to show that “…how­ever busy and bur­dened this group was, how­ever few records they left behind, and how­ever far their ide­ol­ogy may have devi­ated from the lib­eral inte­gra­tionist frame­work, these African-Americans had strong impulses to deter­mine and improve their own futures and found ways to do so through orga­ni­za­tion and inde­pen­dent thought.” For the most part the book deliv­ers on that promise. But still, the find­ings must be put in per­spec­tive. At the end of the day, as illu­mi­nat­ing as her work is, it only sheds light on one area of an impor­tant but failed polit­i­cal movement.

Which brings us to the over­all legacy of Garvey’s move­ment. The UNIA was with­out a doubt an insti­tu­tional fail­ure. The orga­ni­za­tion itself was by all accounts poorly man­aged and squan­dered its mass appeal. Yet it would be a mis­take to dis­miss the impor­tance of the UNIA and Garvey’s career whole­sale because of its tac­ti­cal errors. The apex of the Gar­vey move­ment, and its most phe­nom­e­nal spec­ta­cle, came in 1920 when a UNIA con­ven­tion was held at Madi­son Square Gar­den. The con­ven­tion itself was attended by some 25,000 peo­ple, and thou­sands more turned out to see the UNIA parade wind through the streets of New York. The whole event was staged as an orches­trated coro­na­tion of Gar­vey as the leader of the Pan-African move­ment, a sort of African pres­i­dent in exile. Grant writes that “as with many of Garvey’s ear­lier pro­mo­tions, the idea of African titles unrolled at the con­ven­tion was meant more in ges­ture, albeit a grand ges­ture intended to inspire and unify the Negro world.” And this may be where Garvey’s great­est legacy lies, in pre­cisely these sorts of sym­bolic ges­tures. At the end of the day his most sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tions were mainly in the cul­tural and psy­cho­log­i­cal realm, rather than at the insti­tu­tional level. Gar­vey was not the first emi­gra­tionist, nor was he the first to try to cul­ti­vate a more pos­i­tive atti­tude toward African her­itage and the African con­ti­nent. His African redemp­tion­ism car­ried the all too com­mon van­guardist and elit­ist atti­tude of West­ern blacks towards Africa. Still, he effec­tively pop­u­lar­ized pos­i­tive views of Africa and black­ness, teach­ing that Africa had a past and present, that it was not just a back­ward place from which black Amer­i­cans should be grate­ful to have been “saved.” Oth­ers had been teach­ing this for years, but none achieved so great an effect. His abil­ity to get so many of the black rank and file to embrace his move­ment changed the game in black pol­i­tics and forced other orga­ni­za­tions to reeval­u­ate their own strate­gies in order to reach the black work­ing class.

Racism remains a prob­lem deeply imbed­ded in Amer­i­can cul­ture through insti­tu­tional racism and struc­tural inequal­ity, and it is a prob­lem that can­not be willed away with pro­nounce­ments of color-blindness. In We Who are Dark: The Philo­soph­i­cal Foun­da­tions of Black Sol­i­dar­ity, Har­vard philoso­pher Tom­mie Shelby tries to under­stand how the con­cept of black sol­i­dar­ity can be used in a way that con­tests racist poli­cies and pol­i­tics, but does so with­out reify­ing anti­quated notions of racial essen­tial­ism. I think Shelby speaks for many black intel­lec­tu­als and activists when he writes that his objec­tive in We Who are Dark is to show that “…it is pos­si­ble to dis­pense with the idea of race as a bio­log­i­cal essence and to agree with the crit­ics of iden­tity pol­i­tics about many of its dan­gers and lim­i­ta­tions, while nev­er­the­less con­tin­u­ing to embrace a form of black­ness as an eman­ci­pa­tory tool.” Eval­u­at­ing the work of sev­eral impor­tant pro­po­nents of black sol­i­dar­ity, includ­ing the 19th cen­tury black nation­al­ist Mar­tin R. Delany, W.E. B. Du Bois, and mem­bers of the Black Power Move­ment, Shelby finds that black nation­al­ist thought has often con­tained a mix of “clas­si­cal” and “prag­matic” strategies.

Roughly sim­pli­fied, the “clas­si­cal” frame­work sees black polit­i­cal and national auton­omy as the ulti­mate goal, whether that is achieved through emi­gra­tion, or through some sort of inter­nal con­fig­u­ra­tion as an autonomous “nation within a nation.” (Mar­tin R. Delany is believed to have coined that phrase, taken up by later nation­al­ists.) On the other hand “prag­matic” nation­al­ism is “based on a desire to live in a just soci­ety, a soci­ety that need not be, nor even con­tain, a self-determining black com­mu­nity.” In effect, Shelby shows how black nation­al­ist intel­lec­tu­als, even those who fiercely embraced “clas­si­cal” black nation­al­ism, ulti­mately made “prag­matic” con­ces­sions in order to achieve tan­gi­ble progress and make sub­stan­tive changes. To be clear, Shelby explains that his use of the term “clas­si­cal” is dif­fer­ent from Wil­son J. Moses’ Clas­si­cal Black Nation­al­ism which posits that the end of clas­si­cal black nation­al­ism comes with the impris­on­ment of Mar­cus Gar­vey in 1925. Instead his con­cep­tion of “clas­si­cal” is broad enough to apply to nation­al­ist thought appear­ing in later his­tor­i­cal peri­ods. He also explains that his con­cep­tion of “prag­matic” is based more on a col­lo­quial use of “prag­ma­tism” and less on the school of Amer­i­can phi­los­o­phy asso­ci­ated with Charles Pierce, William James, and John Dewey.

Shelby’s work looks to empha­sis these “prag­matic” aspects of black nation­al­ism. Though he uses the term “nation­al­ism,” to show how this prag­matic polit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy is sit­u­ated within an intel­lec­tual his­tory of black nation­al­ist thought, his empha­sis is really on the idea of black sol­i­dar­ity. Ulti­mately Shelby is not propos­ing an alter­na­tive nation­al­ist project, as much as he is pro­vid­ing an inci­sive philo­soph­i­cal analy­sis of how the black polit­i­cal frame­work actu­ally func­tions today and has func­tioned his­tor­i­cally. As he writes, “The con­cept of sol­i­dar­ity defended in this book is not a rad­i­cal depar­ture from what many black Amer­i­cans already accept.” Indeed, most black Amer­i­cans actu­ally do func­tion some­where between the racial purity of Gar­vey and the “color-blind” bad faith of Ward Con­nerly. Shelby’s form of prag­matic black sol­i­dar­ity is based on the idea that, “what holds blacks together as a uni­fied peo­ple with shared polit­i­cal inter­ests is the fact of their racial sub­or­di­na­tion and their col­lec­tive resolve to tri­umph over it.” Ulti­mately, he argues for a black Amer­i­can sol­i­dar­ity based on the under­stand­ing of shared strug­gle against racism within the Amer­i­can polit­i­cal sys­tem, a sol­i­dar­ity that is mal­leable enough to accom­mo­date dif­fer­ences in cul­ture, gen­der and sex­u­al­ity, a sol­i­dar­ity that is open to the real­i­ties of mul­tira­cial­ism and inter­ra­cial coop­er­a­tion, and a sol­i­dar­ity that is less inter­ested in cul­tural authen­tic­ity, ancient ori­gins, or fan­tasies of an imprac­ti­cal ter­ri­to­r­ial nationalism.

Today the Harlem streets that the Gar­veyites walked are now awash in Obama-mania. Weeks after the elec­tion Obama signs are still vis­i­ble in apart­ment win­dows. On 125th street, one can choose from a vari­ety of boot­leg para­pher­na­lia cel­e­brat­ing America’s first black pres­i­dent. I real­ize there’s been more than enough tire­some edi­to­ri­al­iz­ing about the mean­ing of Obama’s pres­i­dency and I won’t add more. Yet I can’t help but pon­der the con­nec­tions between the his­tory of Mar­cus Gar­vey and the UNIA, the racism that they and other civil rights orga­ni­za­tions (despite their dif­fer­ences) fought so tire­lessly against, and the real­ity that Amer­i­cans have just elected the son of a black Kenyan father and white Amer­i­can mother to its high­est office.

These days it seems Mar­cus Gar­vey has become just another name on streets and parks in black neigh­bor­hoods, or a generic and ambigu­ous sym­bol of black his­tory name-checked by con­scious rap­pers and reg­gae artists. I hold out hope that the works reviewed here will con­tribute to a con­tin­u­ing engage­ment with the details of Garvey’s life and pol­i­tics, and with the his­tory of black free­dom strug­gles, so that those of us who teach the his­tory of Gar­vey and the UNIA (and who teach the teach­ers of this his­tory) will help stu­dents know him as more than just a name on a street sign. And hope­fully we can take what we’ve learned from Gar­vey and black nation­al­ists of the 20th cen­tury to come up with more cre­ative ways of think­ing about black sol­i­dar­ity as we move into the 21st.