Revisiting Racism On Campus In John Singleton’s “Higher Learning”

Laurence Fishburne as Professor Maurice Phipps in “Higher Learning”

In my first article for The North Star I wrote about John Singleton’s college film Higher Learning and how it is relevant to current conversations about race and higher education.

Revisiting Racism On Campus In John Singleton’s ‘Higher Learning.”

(The North Star is a pay-walled publication, but they do offer a free trial option.)

John Singleton’s “Higher Learning”

Laurence Fishburne, Omar Epps, and Ice Cube in HIGHER LEARNING (1995)

I wrote this back in 2010 as part of an article on academic films for The GC Advocate.  I’m reposting this (lightly revised) excerpt in memory of John Singleton who passed away today at age 51 after suffering a stroke.

If you haven’t seen Higher Learning in a while, it’s worth another look. The film captures so many topics in higher education that have only grown more prominent in the subsequent years.

Peace to John Singleton. Condolences to all who knew and loved him.

Higher Learning, directed by Boyz n 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 college 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 thumbs 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. Fudge revels in the role, and pushes the envelope by antagonizing his white classmates with all night parties, and lecturing the young track star Malik Williams (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.

See the rest of the list at “The University on Screen: The Top 10 Academic Films

Campus Fiction on the Web

“Our generation – we subscribe to the old liberal doctrine of the inviolate self. It’s the great tradition of realistic fiction, it’s what novels are all about. The private life in the foreground, history a distant rumble of gunfire, somewhere offstage. In Jane Austen not even a rumble. Well, the novel is dying, and us with it. No wonder I can never get anything out of my novel-writing class at Euphoric State. It’s an unnatural medium for their experience. Those kids (gestures at screen) are living a film, not a novel.”

– David Lodge, Changing Places (1975)  


Bad news Mr. Lodge. Film is an old medium now. These days we are living a YouTube video: short, truncated, atomized, disintegrated, yet part of the scheme.  Much of what I’ve learned about academic fiction has come from the web, whether from the blog Schoolsville (which collects recent articles and reviews of campus novels), or Ms. Mentor columns on academic novels in The Chronicle of Higher Education, or other articles on academic fiction from various sites around the web (some of which I’ve corralled into this bibliography).

Recently I’ve noticed a few YouTube videos and other digital content relevant to the topic and wanted to share them here.  This is by no means exhaustive. You can check out my Twitter feed (speaking of fragmentation) where I’m more likely to share individual items as I find them.

The Library at the Edge of the World is a YouTube channel with reviews of all sorts of books.  The episode below is about the Campus Novel.  Though I disagree with this vlogger’s take on John Williams’s Stoner, there’s some interesting commentary on other academic novels old and new, and the comment section has examples from other viewers.

And just to pluck out one random example of how other people are engaging with these books, one of the commenters on that video vlogs at Dinosaur in the Library and did a review of Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members, a book that I have checked out from the library, that has been in my queue for a while, and which I hopefully will get to sometime this spring or summer. (So much to read, so little time…)

I’ve run across Professor Merritt Moseley’s name in the critical literature on academic novels, and I’ve read his anthology The Academic Novel: New and Classic Essays. Here is a video of Moseley giving a lecture on the campus novel at his home campus, the University of North Carolina-Asheville.

And on Twitter, there’s “A Different World Now” a weekly chat group run from the account @hillmantoday which hosts Saturday morning livetweets on the series, which is now streaming on Netflix.  The group usually does two episodes per week and they are currently up to Season 5. I haven’t been able to participate often, but I’m happy to see that there’s sustained interest in the show, which remains one of the most important representations of black college life in pop culture.

There are also a number of new films that I’ve seen but haven’t written about. I should probably do an updated list with some of the most recent college films. (A few weeks ago I saw The Five-Year Engagement which was racist as hell, much like too many other college films of its type, and also gave me a slight case of PTSD from the two miserable years I spent in Ann Arbor.)

Lastly, from a more traditional mode of scholarship, the latest issue of the literary journal Callaloo includes my review of Stephanie Brown’s The Postwar African American Novel, a book that caught my attention because it contains an informative chapter on J. Saunders Redding’s 1950 college novel Stranger and Alone, which takes place in a fictional black college called New Hope.

In the meantime I’m working to add a few more items of my own to the critical literature on academic fiction.