Academic Film: Admission

Tina Fey, Wallace Shawn and Gloria Reuben in Admission (2013)

Tina Fey, Wallace Shawn and Gloria Reuben in Admission (2013)

By now you’ve probably seen that New Republic article “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League”, and all the rebuttals, and all the rebuttals to the rebuttals. In the article William Deresiewicz provides a rather thorough and convincing (if unoriginal) critique of elite college preparation. It’s a hyper-competitive process that begins at infancy (for kids from elite families), encourages the most cynical and cutthroat behavior from students, and, as Deresiewicz and others have argued, undermines the very purposes of college. (Personally, I liked the way the film The History Boys dealt with all this in a British context.) My biggest problem with the article (besides his swipe at race-based affirmative action) is that he had very little to say about public universities, community colleges and for-profit colleges where the students aren’t all college-prep-programmed youngsters, and where “admissions” operates under a whole different paradigm. This is by far the largest and fastest growing segment of higher education, and the one that most of us will encounter. He can critique the Ivy League all he wants, but the kind of prestige signified by an Ivy League education is one that is remarkably resilient, even among those of us who are happy with our non-Ivy League educations, or who never attended college at all. To some degree I think we all buy into and attach value to the prestige of being affiliated with an Ivy League institution, even when we should know better.

In my “Storifying the Academy” article that I posted a few months ago I made a backhanded comment about the recent academic film Admission. After viewing it again, I stand corrected. There’s more to this film than Lily Tomlin’s performance (though she does have some great lines). Admission is actually an interesting examination of the admissions process, this ritual of rejection and acceptance that millions of students put themselves through each year. The film dramatizes what this process means for the administrators and students involved, and what this process says about the way higher education functions, particularly at its most elite levels.

Like most academic films and novels, this one has been judged according to how well it represents the real-life academy. Suffice to say there are exaggerations and embellishments, but not all of them are bad. When the film was released in theaters in 2013, Inside Higher Ed hosted a discussion with some actual admissions officers about the veracity of the film. Vulture published an interview with Jean Hanff Korelitz, author of the novel upon which the screenplay is based, and screenwriter Karen Croner.  Korelitz and Croner provide an interesting discussion about the process of bringing this particular novel to the big screen, and also about how film adaptations often differ from their novels.   (And since I began with the New Republic article it is also worth noting here that William Deresiewicz himself has written about academic fiction before: see “Love on Campus”)

In her study of academic fiction The University in Modern Fiction: When Power is Academic, Janice Rossen writes about the ways that power, inclusion and exclusion define university life. For Rossen, Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure is the exemplary academic novel because its main character yearns to be a part of Christ Church, Oxford, but as a working-class stone mason and an autodidact he really stood no chance to enter the hallowed walls of the university. He didn’t have the proper training and pedigree, and there was no way for him to work his way into that kind of prestige.

Admission follows the story of Portia Nathan (Tina Fey), an admissions officer at Princeton. The Director of Admissions (Wallace Shawn) is distressed over the fact that Princeton has fallen to number 2 in the U.S. News & World Report rankings. (Of course, we don’t really put any stock in those rankings, do we? They’re just fun to look at, right?) And so he sends his admission team out to find the freshman class that will put them back on top.

Portia accepts an invitation from John Pressman (Paul Rudd), the principal of The Quest School, an alternative high school with an eccentric curriculum, to come speak to his students about admission to Princeton. It is there that Portia meets a modern-day “Jude the Obscure” in the form of Jeremiah, a student with a terrible academic record, who also happens to be a brilliant autodidact who has aced every AP test that he took (without taking any AP classes) and has a near perfect score on his SATs.

In one sequence Portia gives her admissions spiel to students at an elite prep school, where, decked out in uniforms, they listen to her with respect and obedience. Cut to her scene at Quest, however, and Portia finds herself giving the same talk in a barn (part of the school’s hands-on learning environment) and facing a barrage of snarky questions and comments from a bunch of smart-aleck students such as: “Why should I apply to an elitist institution with a history of anti-black, anti-gay and anti-female oppression?” and “Wouldn’t you be better off sitting in your room reading books?” and “Don’t people just need a college degree if you want to pursue the societally approved definition of success?” As one student puts it, “what we want is to leave the planet better than we found it.” The questions and comments are certainly valid and refreshing to hear, but they also represent a certain sarcastic and cynical attitude toward formal education that has become all too cheap and easy. Portia finally fires back at them with a spirited defense of her profession. “I have a question for all of you. Just how will you leave the planet better? Do you want to eradicate disease? Well, you’re going to need a medical degree. If you want to create new drug therapies, that’s a Ph.D. If you want to defend the innocent and secure justice for all, I regret to inform you that you will have to go to law school!” And I think she was right to push back against their knee-jerk sarcasm. It’s easy to lapse into this snarky attitude about higher education. Yes, higher ed has certainly earned those doubts with its constant tuition increases, expensive textbook extortion schemes, and its massive student loan debt system. But I doubt any of us really wants to have surgery performed by a self-taught doctor whose only training came from reading Gray’s Anatomy and studying biology and chemistry MOOCs on Academic Earth.

Portia soon finds out (MAJOR SPOILER) that Jeremiah may be the son that she gave up for adoption years ago when she carried out an unexpected pregnancy while a student at Dartmouth. And then on top of that emotional bombshell, she experiences an embarrassing and humiliating breakup in a hilarious bit where her nebbish English professor boyfriend (Michael Sheen) leaves her in the middle of a dinner party by confessing that he’s impregnated a colleague who Portia describes as “that vile Virginia Woolf scholar.”

It’s obvious why Portia’s judgment about Jeremiah is skewed when it comes to his chances for admission. The breakup has left her emotionally out of sorts, and learning about Jeremiah brought back so many difficult questions about her life choices. Portia is so intent on him getting into Princeton because she feels he deserves it, because she wants him close to her, and because in her worldview, this is the best thing that she can do for him. In the process she fails to consider one simple idea: Maybe it is Princeton that doesn’t deserve to have Jeremiah. Maybe he would be better off somewhere else – say a liberal arts college like Reed College – where his eccentricity would be seen as an asset rather than a liability.

The film deserves credit for its portrayal of women in positions of authority in the academy. There’s an interesting give and take between Portia and her colleague Corinne (Gloria Reuben) who are both vying to be the new Director of Admissions. Throughout the film we see women having to negotiate child-rearing and babysitting, the difficulty of getting “emotional” as a woman in a professional setting, and jokes about the need for “sisterhood” even as they are in fierce competition for the same positions.

Mostly the film worked for me because it shows the irresistibility of these hierarchies of prestige. Getting into Princeton means something. Winning an appointment as an Ivy League professor means something. Even for those of us who claim we don’t believe in such hierarchies, we still lapse into celebrating that prestige, when say, an Ivy League school happens to hire a scholar whose work that we really like, or when one of our own children or family members or friends gets accepted or hired by one of these schools. Being admitted into those halls is incredibly validating, a powerful signifier of status and success, and that kind of prestige has been centuries in the making.  Admission makes the case that even when we’re at our most critical of Ivy League prestige, it can’t easily be shaken, least of all by those who are deeply embedded within it.

Academic Film: Dear White People


This is not a drill. I repeat. This is not a drill. There is a black academic film coming to theaters this fall.

The highly anticipated Dear White People is a satirical film about black students at an Ivy League university. It is the debut film of director Justin Simien and stars Tessa Thompson, Tyler Williams (aka that kid from Everybody Hates Chris), Teyonna Parris, Brandon P. Bell and Dennis Haysbert. The advance buzz for this sounds promising. Already people are comparing it favorably to Spike Lee’s School Daze. There certainly seems to be potential here to spark discussions about race and class in higher education, appropriation, authenticity, and intraracial black politics. The first full trailer for it was just released yesterday and it looks great. Zeba Blay’s review on the blog Shadow and Act from the film’s Sundance screening back in January is worth reading to get a glimpse of what’s ahead. Needless to say, I’ll probably end up writing a few more words about this one before it’s all over.

Storifying the Academy


Back in September 2013 Inside Higher Ed published an article by Todd C. Ream about the show The Big Bang Theory and its depiction of tenure.  I hadn’t watched the show before and didn’t even realize it was about professors.  But I probably should have known about it. I study academic fiction – popular depictions of academia in novels and films and other creative forms – and I’ve tried to stay on top of the latest examples in the genre.  That article prompted a brief exchange among some academics on Twitter about other depictions of higher education in popular culture, and some of them pondered whether there had been any critical analysis on the subject.

I’ve seen these conversations played out online many times before.  Here’s how it usually goes:  Someone posts a listicle on what they believe to be the Top 10 academic novels or the Top 10 academic films.  Then a commenter comes along and writes, “Ooh, nice list, but what about [insert academic novel or film that they liked].”   And then someone else comes along and says, “Yeah, and what about [insert other academic novels and films].” And on and on it goes.

In the interest of moving these conversations forward, I thought it might be helpful to take a look at the field of academic fiction criticism.  Yes, there is such a thing.  Several scholars have written books and articles analyzing these depictions of academia in popular culture.

When it comes to academic novels the best place to start would be John Kramer’s thorough bibliography The American College Novel: An Annotated Bibliography, first published in 1981 and updated in 2004. The updated version lists 648 novels ranging from major novels written by critically acclaimed novelists and published by big corporate publishing houses, to independently published first novels by minor authors.  The bibliography is broken down into “student-centered” and “staff-centered” novels. Some critics in this field like to make a distinction between college novels which began to take form around the early 20th century, and which were mostly about the fleeting years of undergraduate life, and academic novels a genre that came about in the 1950s with books like Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim and Mary McCarthy’s Groves of Academe.  The latter novels tend to be about the “lifers” – grad students, professors and administrators, for whom academia is a career.  The distinction can be helpful sometimes, but I’ve tried not to be too deterministic about it.

Kramer also published another annotated bibliography, Academe in Mystery and Detective Fiction (first published in 1983, and expanded in 2000), which covers academic novels with mystery or detective plots set in academia, a sub-genre that includes one of the all-time greatest titles for any academic novel ever, Death in a Tenured Position (1986) written by Carolyn Heilbrun under her nom de plume Amanda Cross.

While the Kramer bibliographies focus on the United States, the academic novel really took form in England in the 19th century, and the earliest works were dominated by Oxford and Cambridge. John Dougill’s Oxford in English Literature: The Making and Undoing of the English Athens (1998) chronicles the many creative depictions of Oxford in novels, poetry, plays and films.  Most critics agree that the first college novel in the U.S. was Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Fanshawe (1828) a book based on his experiences as a student at Bowdoin College in Maine.  Early studies of the academic novel covered the genre in England and the U.S. and they included works such as Mortimer Proctor’s The English University Novel (1957) and John Lyons’s The College Novel in America (1963).  Then came books such as Ian Carter’s Ancient Cultures of Conceit (1990), Janice Rossen’s The University in Modern Fiction (1993), Kenneth Womack’s Postwar Academic Fiction (2002) and Elaine Showalter’s Faculty Towers: The Academic Novel and its Discontents (2005), which have all added more theoretical approaches to the genre.  There have also been some substantial critical articles on academic fiction such as “The Rise of the Academic Novel” a 2012 article in American Literary History by Jeffrey J. Williams in which he provides some statistical analysis of the growth of the academic novel, based in part on the data from the Kramer bibliographies.   (As you can tell, there continues to be an Anglo-American bias at work here, and one of the biggest critiques of this body of literature is that it needs to be more global.)

The interest in academic novels remains strong.  I’ve been astonished by the growing interest in the John Williams novel Stoner, a book I have written about before.  It was first published in 1965, but recently reissued in The New York Review Books Classic series in 2003, and it has been tearing up the literary Internet over the last five years as more and more readers have discovered it, and assigned it in classes and blogged about it.  There have been newer entries into the genre in recent years such as Mat Johnson’s Pym and Susan Choi’s My Education, not to mention a whole slew of self-published e-book romance novels and mystery novels set in academia.  (I can’t say I know too many of them well right now, but I’m working my way there slowly.)

As far as film goes, John Conklin’s Campus Life in the Movies: A Critical Survey from the Silent Era to the Present (2008) is the best book-length survey of college films, identifying 681 films that feature college campuses in some form.  The only beef I have with Conklin’s book is that he chose to exclude films about graduate students and professors in favor of movies about undergraduate life.  It’s a minor quibble, but leaves out great films such as the 2003 adaptation of Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, or the Mike Nichols directed 2001 HBO film Wit, based on the play by Margaret Edson and featuring Emma Thompson as John Donne scholar Vivian Bearing.  Wit is a wonderful film, that I consider among the best depictions of the scholarly life.  I’ve made a couple of feeble attempts at listing academic films on my own blog.  At some point I hope to write about more recent additions to the genre, including the stellar Israeli film Footnote (2011) about a pair of father and son Talmud scholars involved in a painful academic award mix-up, and the less than stellar, but still interesting, 2013 Tina Fey comedy Admission, which is mostly worth seeing for Lily Tomlin’s performance.

So what’s the point of all this?  For much of its history, the academic novel has been criticized as a trivial genre, a largely intramural body of literature only of interest to a limited, snobby world of academic elites and written by bitter professors who wanted to hash out petty disputes through thinly veiled caricatures of their institutions and colleagues.  Indeed, most of these critics acknowledge that the field of academic fiction is cluttered with just such books.  Nevertheless, these critics have also given us many reasons for why this genre deserves serious consideration, and have also proven that the settings of these stories are not as limited to elite spaces as they once were. The genre has evolved as the population of students at colleges and universities has grown. For me, the appeal of the academic novel is in the ancient practice of storytelling. I think people turn to academic novels and films because these works help us to understand the meaning of higher education by communicating what it feels like to be connected to these institutions.  Academic fiction speaks to the aspirations, disappointments and triumphs that students and professors experience in their academic lives, and it links the travails of the individual student or professor to a bigger story about the history and origin and purpose of higher education.

Just as the website Storify helps Internet users to collect disparate digital material from across the web and organize it into a singular, digestible narrative, the academic novel also takes the disparate information of academic life – the statistics, the history, the anecdotes, the experiences, the impressions – and turns all of that information into a compelling narrative that communicates to other people what it means to be a part of these institutions.

When high school students select a college to attend, they not only look at the facilities and the rankings and the graphs showing salaries of recent graduates, but inevitably they want to have conversations with students at these schools to try to get a sense of what it feels like to go there.  What they really want are the compelling stories about the institution, something beyond the data that will help them decide which school will be most fulfilling for them.  Like many other graduates of black colleges the TV show A Different World inspired my own decision to attend an HBCU. And in the summer before I went to Morehouse I rented Spike Lee’s School Daze from the local Blockbuster and watched it several times over. (There’s been talk of a sequel to the film swirling around for years. We’ll see if anything comes of it.)

I realize my topic is ridiculously reflexive, making me some kind of an academic ourobouros or a Möbius strip – an academic writing about academics writing about academia.  Yes, I’ve been asked before if I’ve considered writing an academic novel myself, and yes, it has occurred to me that it might be a head-trip to read an academic novel about a graduate student writing a dissertation on academic novels.  I’m not sure I’ll ever get to it, but I’m not afraid to throw that out there as a challenge.  If someone wants to scoop me on it, you’re welcome to it.

So has this subject really gone too far? Despite our claims about the critical importance of the academic novel, and its relevance to issues beyond the Ivory Tower, aren’t we critics of academic fiction and authors of academic novels, at the end of the day, really just a bunch of insular navel-gazers?  Maybe.  But I suspect that as long as people keep on going to college there will always be someone willing to tell her story about it, and someone else who will want to read it, and then maybe, just maybe, a curious critic will wander along later and find that book and feel an urge to read it, and write about it.

The Over-Educated Negro: A Manifesto

I wanted to launch into this next phase of my writing by providing a little bit of framing and explanation about this blog title, my dissertation title and my approach to the academic novel.  What follows is a modified version of a section of my dissertation. [Fair warning: about 5,000 words ahead. And yes, I did quote Kanye in the actual dissertation.]

So why “The Over-Educated Negro”?

Because I’ve come to believe in the value of embracing and owning the label of over-educated.

Because I’d like to see the term over-educated reclaimed in the proud tradition of reclaiming and refashioning the insult, in the same way that worlds like “black” and “queer” have been appropriated and repurposed into terms of empowerment.

Because the slur of over-educated is often a term directed towards those of us who don’t “deserve” to be educated, who are perceived to be operating above our station in life.

In The Over-Education of the Negro: Academic Novels, Higher Education and the Black Intellectual I use discourses of over-education to frame my study of black academic novels and other forms of fiction about black higher education.  Sometimes the use of the term over-education comes from very real concerns about the effectiveness of higher education and the way that its bureaucratic systems can serve to impede knowledge.  Sometimes the word over-educated is targeted at elitism among college educated folks who look down upon others who don’t have formal education, whether by choice or by lack of opportunity.  I try to take those critiques seriously.  And I hope that in my writing I always show respect for the black autodidactic tradition, because so much of African-American studies that is institutionalized in the academy now would never have been possible without historians, archivists, artists and intellectuals who worked on the margins of the academy or outside of it altogether.

At the same time, there are other usages of over-educated that have been specifically directed at black intellectuals, and which are pretty obviously rooted in white supremacist anxieties about black folks getting too big for our breeches. And those anxieties have a way of rubbing off on black intellectuals too, some of whom have questioned whether too much education might unintentionally create problems for us.

In fact, “over-education” might be a useful rubric for evaluating the history of black education and black literature.

You might say that the first phase in this “over-education” of the Negro began with the acquisition of basic literacy.  Few writers have articulated the importance of education as a tool of liberation better than the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass.   In his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, he explained how the wife of his owner taught him how to read in secret, and how her husband discovered what she was doing and scolded her for it. Douglass’s rendition of what his enslaver said to his wife about teaching the young boy to read remains one of the most powerful statements in American letters about the relationship between knowledge and power:

If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell.  A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master – to do as he is told to do.  Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world…if you teach that nigger how to read there would be no keeping him.  It would forever unfit him to be a slave.  He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm.  It would make him discontent and unhappy. (49)

It is from Douglass’s narrative, and from many other stories like it about literacy and slavery that we see one of the fundamental precepts of American white supremacy:  Any education of Negroes is already too much.   Thus, the educated Negro is always already in a state of over-education.

When I came up with the title “The Over-Education of the Negro,” I did what I’m sure is now standard practice for anyone choosing a title for a major project: I Googled that precise phrase…and found two distinct hits.  One was a quote from a former governor of Mississippi, the other was from a (white) president of Howard University.

The first quote is attributed to Governor James Vardaman of my wonderful home state of Mississippi, and it appears in a January 2, 1904 issue of The Literary Digest.

The overeducation of the negro is an evil certainly, but there is small danger that he will be over-educated in the average rural public school of the South.  Education makes a criminal of the negro only when he is educated beyond that point which fits him for the state of life in which it hath pleased God to call him. (168)

The passage is reprinted from an article in the New Orleans Times-Democrat in which the governor is quoted. Both the Times-Democrat article and this one in the Literary Digest were reporting on the Governor’s comments about the prevalence of crime among the educated black population in Massachusetts.  Governor Vardaman seemed to be using those statistics as justification for the South’s own feeble educational policy toward its black population, and arguing that this “evil” practice of over-educating Negroes would surely lead to disobedience and criminal behavior.

The second quote comes from The Negro Problem, an anthology of articles on black social issues compiled by Julia E. Jehnsen and published by The H.W. Wilson Company in 1921.  The particular article in which the term is used was “The Higher Education of the Negro” by Wilbur B. Thirkield, who served as President of Howard University from 1906-1912:

The capacity of the Negro for the higher education has been settled.  We have learned, however, to distinguish between the intellectual capacity with which God has endowed all races, and the intellectual and moral equipment of a race which is the outcome of civilization and environment.  The last danger is the over-education of the Negro.  We have only touched the fringes of the race.  His real education is a task of generations. (193)

In these quotes we see two different ideas about the over-education of blacks in America; one, from a white supremacist governor of a Southern state warning that too much education will lead to criminality and insubordination among blacks, and the other, a statement from the white president of a black college who dismissed the idea that over-education was any real danger.  Both of these are examples of a persistent anxiety about black higher education, that the educated black person might somehow be dangerous for white Americans, and that higher education might also be ruinous, disadvantageous, or even dangerous for blacks themselves.

Education and literacy have played a significant role in the history of African-American literature.  The first black writers, such as Jupiter Hammon and Phillis Wheatley, and the authors of 19th century slave narratives such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, were all held up as representations of the intellectual possibilities of black persons, as signs of black humanity being read with and against an overwhelming discourse of white supremacy and black intellectual inferiority.

In his book Figures in Black: Words, Signs and the “Racial” Self (1987)  Henry Louis Gates, Jr. identified  an intricate relationship between literary criticism and black literary production.  He states that “few literary traditions have begun or been sustained by such a complex ironic relation to their criticism: allegations of an absence led directly to a presence, a literature often inextricably bound in a dialogue with its potentially harshest critics” (26).  From Thomas Jefferson’s dismissal of Phillis Wheatley’s poetry in Notes on the State of Virginia to Hegel’s suggestion that “Africa is no historical part of the world, it has no movement or development to exhibit,” black literature was burdened with the need to prove its humanity against the weight of Western historical and philosophical theories.

Unlike almost every other literary tradition, the Afro-American literary tradition was generated as a response to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century allegations that persons of African descent did not, and could not, create literature.  Philosophers and literary critics, such as Hume, Kant, Jefferson, and Hegel, seemed to decide that the absence or presence of a written literature was the measure of the potential, innate humanity of a race.  The African living in Europe or in the New World seems to have felt compelled to create a literature both to demonstrate implicitly that blacks did indeed possess the intellectual ability to create a written art and to indict the several social and economic institutions that delimited the humanity of all black people in Western cultures. (26)

Gates also writes that, “For the ex-slave to become subjects, as it were, black ex-slaves had to demonstrate their language-using capacity before they could become social and historical entities.  In short, slaves could inscribe their selves only in language” (105).  Thus from the beginning, black writing and black education were always bound up with ideas of racial destiny, were always burdened with being referenda on the intellectual competence of the race, and were always pressured into performing the suitability of blacks for democratic citizenship.

In the years following the end of slavery, African-Americans in the South set about building schools to educate this population of former slaves, many of whom were deliberately kept illiterate under slavery through social customs and through laws that made it illegal for them to learn to read.  The postbellum era saw a Herculean collective effort by black educators, black churches and white philanthropists to build institutions of higher learning to ensure that the next generation would have educational opportunities not available to the ones who came before them.

However, the flipside of this proud history of black education, which overcame all that repression and hostility and fought its way into existence, is that there has also been a profound anxiety of over-education from within the black community as well, including concerns about cultivating insubordination, compromising employability, compromising racial authenticity, and losing one’s religious beliefs.

I started out by quoting Frederick Douglass, who helped us to understand that in white supremacist America, any education of Negroes is already too much.  But that’s only part of the story.  Under chattel slavery and in the post-emancipation era of Jim Crow, blacks did receive an education of sorts, but it was a particular kind of education that taught them the skills of laborers and servants, and taught them to accept that this would always be their place in society.  As James Anderson reminds us in The Education of Blacks in the South “both schooling for democratic citizenship and schooling for second-class citizenship have been basic traditions in American education” (3).

In the post-emancipation period, as black schools and colleges began to sprout up, an anxiety develops about the Negro’s educational advancement. One particularly vexing issue was that of the classical education in the humanities, an education which was seen by some as wasteful, dangerous and ruinous to the black work ethic as laborers, and as part of the ominous beginnings of a demand for civic equality.

Famously, W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington duked it out over the proper educational curriculum for black advancement. In his 1901 autobiography Up From Slavery, Booker T. Washington described his travels to black schools throughout the South and in one striking passage illustrates the tragic outcome of what could happen to blacks who were trained in a humanistic education, but without practical skills of physical labor.

It was also interesting to note how many big books some of them had studied, and how many high-sounding subjects some of them claimed to have mastered.  The bigger the book and the longer the name of the subject, the prouder they felt of their accomplishment.  Some had studied Latin, and one or two Greek.  This they thought entitled them to special distinction.

In fact, one of the saddest things I saw during the month of travel which I have described was a young man, who had attended some high school, sitting down in a one-room cabin, with grease on his clothing, filth all around him, and weeds in the yard and garden, engaged in a studying of French grammar. (58)

In this scene we see Booker T. Washington deploying the pejorative image of the “scholar-as-buffoon” and “the educated fool.” In this passage, and throughout Up From Slavery, Washington attempts to reassure sympathetic whites that the blacks who are interested in this sort of classical education are not representative of the race, and that he intends to steer black students away from such foolish and wasteful pursuits and help them develop practical skills in farming and skilled labor.  The depiction was also meant to reassure Southern whites that these black students were not interested in pursuing a political program of equality brought on by studying such lofty subjects which could plant the “dangerous” idea in their heads that blacks were themselves also heirs to, and contributors to, a Western intellectual tradition, and thus might be equal to white folks.

Also in the late 19th and early 20th century, black women educators such as Anna Julia Cooper advocated for the education of black women, a population for whom higher education was certainly not intended, except in some cases for training as schoolteachers in black elementary and high schools.   Her groundbreaking book A Voice from the South (1892) called for black women to play a more active role in racial progress, and her work also pre-dated and anticipated the classical/vocational education debates of Du Bois and Washington.

Now I claim that it is the prevalence of the Higher Education among women, the making it a common and everyday affair for women to reason and think and express their thought, the training and stimulus which enable and encourage women to administer to the world the bread it needs as well as the sugar it cries for; in short it is the transmitting the potential forces of her soul into dynamic factors that has given symmetry and completeness to the world’s agencies. (57)

In 1924, at the age of 67, Anna Julia Cooper received her Ph.D. from the University of Paris, Sorbonne, and became the fourth African-American woman to earn a doctorate.  She was the principle of the M Street Academy (later the Paul Laurence Dunbar High School), and also served for a decade as the president of the Frelinghuysen University, a night school for adults.  In a 2009 African-American Review article, “In Service for the Common Good:  Anna Julia Cooper and Adult Education,” Karen Johnson, a professor of education, examines Cooper’s ideas and activism in the field of adult education.  It was in her work on adult education that Cooper also resisted the idea of pure vocational training, and emphasized the importance of liberal arts education for working people, a population who many did not see worthy of such an education:

For Cooper, adult education should alleviate illiteracy, provide a liberal arts education for the working poor, and provide a vocational education combined with liberal arts course of study for the unskilled laborer. Most importantly, for Cooper, adult education should enable and inspire the African American adult learner to link up with others in social and civic programs as a way of promoting social change. (51)

Perhaps one of the most incisive statements about over-education, and the challenges it presented for black intellectuals, comes from one of the most important early black educational projects, The American Negro Academy.  The passage I cite here comes from one of the lesser known members of the Academy, William S. Scarborough, considered the first African-American scholar in classics. Scarborough, a graduate of Oberlin College, and President of Wilberforce University in Ohio from 1908 to 1920, contributed an essay to the published collection of occasional papers from the American Negro Academy titled “The Educated Negro and His Mission,” and in that essay he wrote:

The educated Negro is an absolute fact. The day is past when his ability to learn is scoffed at. But on the other hand is born that fear that he may go too far—excel or equal the Anglo-Saxon,—and that fear is a prime motive in the minds of many who seek to hedge the onward path of the race. But this path will not be hedged. This educated class, though few in number, has been keeping for years the torch aloft for the race. It must be with us for the future. It has a mission in the world and it is working in a brave endeavor to fulfill that mission. For the good of the whole country this class must multiply, not decrease in number.

Scarborough’s statement here captures the way in which this anxiety of over-education that originated with white supremacy had wormed its way into black political discourse, and in this strong statement, Scarborough defiantly resists it.

Moving ahead many years, into our own time, after the tumultuous social changes of the 20th century with the civil rights movement and integration, and now into the second decade of the 21st century, there have been substantial changes in higher education, to say the least.  The G.I. Bill led to a massive expansion of American higher education after World War II, particularly benefitting working class white men who entered universities in greater numbers.  There have also been substantial increases in enrollment for African-Americans, women and other racial and ethnic minority groups.  The progress is undeniable. Consider these recent statistics from the U.S. Department of Education:

  • Enrollment in degree-granting institutions increased by 11 percent between 1990 and 2000. Between 2000 and 2010, enrollment increased 37 percent, from 15.3 million to 21.0 million. Much of the growth between 2000 and 2010 was in full-time enrollment; the number of full-time students rose 45 percent, while the number of part-time students rose 26 percent. During the same time period, the number of females rose 39 percent, while the number of males rose 35 percent. Enrollment increases can be affected both by population growth and by rising rates of enrollment.
  • Since 1988, the number of females in postbaccalaureate programs has exceeded the number of males. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of male full-time postbaccalaureate students increased by 38 percent, compared with a 62 percent increase in the number of females. Among part-time postbaccalaureate students, the number of males increased by 17 percent and the number of females increased by 26 percent.
  • The percentage of American college students who are Hispanic, Asian/Pacific Islander, and Black has been increasing. From 1976 to 2010, the percentage of Hispanic students rose from 3 percent to 13 percent, the percentage of Asian/Pacific Islander students rose from 2 percent to 6 percent, and the percentage of Black students rose from 9 percent to 14 percent.

[U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Digest of Education Statistics, 2011 (NCES 2012-001).]

Yet while we can celebrate these statistics as signs of growing educational opportunities, it would be a mistake to take this growth of higher education as an innocently positive development.  These numbers also depict the growth of higher education as a profitable industry.  Traditional universities are increasingly run like corporations with emphasis on data-driven managerialization, eliminating unproductive departments in the humanities and social sciences, and utilizing a “flexible” labor force of adjunct professors, which in some universities are as much as 60 to 70% of all faculty.  New for-profit colleges such as the popular University of Phoenix have aggressively recruited students and created opportunities for other for-profit colleges to get into the higher education game.   And with the rising cost of higher education, commercial banks have become more involved in a growth industry for student loans, encouraging students to go deep in debt in order to finance their educations. All to say, there are plenty of serious reasons to be skeptical about the university as it exists today.

One of my favorite recent iterations of the discourse of over-education comes from Kanye West’s multi-platinum college themed album College Dropout (2004), the first in a three part college-themed series that included Late Registration and Graduation.  Kanye’s mother, Donda West, was an English professor and the chair of the English Department at the historically black college Chicago State University. She retired to become her son’s business manager when his musical career took off, and tragically, she died in 2007 after complications following a surgical procedure.

College Dropout contains a series of comic sketches (narrated by comedian DeRay Davis) about a black man who proudly touts the fact that he has earned multiple degrees, even though he has made very little money from his education.

You keep it going, man. You keep those books rolling. You pick up all those books you’re going to read and not remember, and you roll, man. You get that associate’s degree, okay. Then you get your bachelor’s. Then you get your master’s. Then you get your master’s master’s. Then you get your doctrine (sic).  You go man. And then when everybody says quit, you show them those degrees, man. When everyone says hey, you’re not working, you’re not making any money, you say look at my degrees and you look at my life. Yeah I’m fifty-two. So what? Hate all you want, but I’m smart. I’m so smart, and I’m in school, and these guys are out here making money all these ways, and I’m spending mine to be smart. You know why? Because when I die, buddy, you know what’s going to keep me warm? That’s right, those degrees!

The final skit in the series picks up after the original narrator has died and now the son of the narrator speaks (also voiced by Davis) explaining that he was also in school during all the time that his father was in school, and that he is now broke and homeless, his only possessions being the degrees that his father left him. “I’m going to learn too. I’m going to get super smart so I too can die without money, but I’ll be the smartest dead guy.  Who has that?!”

West was taken to task by some critics who felt that the album was encouraging students to drop out of college to pursue their own faulty dreams of stardom.  On the contrary, I was impressed to see black college life depicted on a mainstream hip-hop album at all.  In fact, the album was probably as successful as it was precisely because it satirized aspects of college life that were familiar to a large segment of the hip-hop audience across racial lines – including classes, parties, step shows, and low paying part-time jobs.  (And of course, most people picked up on the fact that this was all satire and not something to be taken literally.)

But yes, there is a way in which these skits on the album do address some rather difficult questions about the efficacy of higher education.  Are the noble projects of uplift through formal higher education truly contributing to any kind of racial or economic equality?  Does encouraging black students to go to college really contribute to collective racial advancement and help to ameliorate social problems in black communities?  Or is this emphasis on formal education ensnaring a generation of young black people in irrelevant, outmoded and costly forms of education?   With so many students struggling with loan debt, and an obvious trend toward colleges targeting minority populations in the risky and expensive for-profit college sector, we can no longer innocently assume that higher education contributes to a better quality of life, however one might measure its benefits, whether economically, spiritually or politically.  As I’ve argued elsewhere, profit-driven higher education (whether by for-profit colleges or traditional colleges) often taps into the class aspirations and the hopes and dreams of working-class folks, to sell them on an education that will help improve their economic lot in life.  The evidence seems to be piling up that these students are getting sold a bill of goods, and are being entrapped in insurmountable debt, and that these admonitions to go to college need to be tempered with some critical conversations about what that means, and how to do that in a way that doesn’t place economically precarious students in even more financial risk.

The silver lining of all the recent crisis talk about higher education is that it has prompted more rigorous thinking about the meaning and purpose of higher education.  Sure, the need to justify and quantify educational outcomes is tiresome, and this pressure is in itself one of the bullying mechanisms of the corporate interests (banks, namely) that control the agenda of institutions of higher education today.  The very commodification of education on these terms is already problematic, but the criticism has prompted those of us who work in higher education, and who care about its future beyond immediate profits, to sharpen our beliefs about why the work we do is important.

Another obvious inspiration for this dissertation title which I haven’t mentioned so far is Carter G. Woodson’s The Mis-Education of the Negro (1933), a highly influential polemic on the politics of black education. I admit that what I have described thus far as over-education might also be described as “mis-education” in Woodson’s terms. I suspect that this is often what is meant when that slur of “over-educated” is directed toward the college-educated black intellectual by other blacks – not so much too much education, but too much “white” education.  Woodson’s book was directed toward an educated black elite who he felt had abandoned the black community and replaced the mission of uplift with their own individual personal advancement.  Though Woodson was a staunch advocate of black higher education, he also cautioned educated blacks about how their educations could lead them to betray the very communities from which they came.  More importantly, Woodson’s book questioned the efficacy of sending black intellectuals to be educated in institutions saturated in unchecked white supremacist ideology, and having them reproduce that ideology upon their own people.  In that most oft-repeated paragraph from the preface of the book Woodson stated:

No systematic effort toward change has been possible, for, taught the same economics, history, philosophy, literature and religion which have established the present code of morals, the Negro’s mind has been brought under the control of his oppressor. The problem of holding the Negro down, therefore, is easily solved. When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his “proper place” and will stay in it. You do not need to send him to the back door. He will go without being told. In fact, if there is no back door, he will cut one for his special benefit. His education makes it necessary. (xiii)

Indeed this problem of the oppressive underpinnings of these institutions remains, and Woodson’s critiques are still germane.  Consider Craig Wilder’s provocative new book Ebony and Ivy (2013) which retraces the history of slaveholding in America’s early colleges, showing how the generational institutional wealth that these institutions hold was built on the backs of black labor.  And while my dissertation also addresses the way that the student movements of the 1960s and 1970s transformed universities, it would also be a mistake to think that new programs in black studies and other areas have necessarily changed the fundamental ideology of these institutions.  In a recent review of Robyn Weigman’s book Object Lessons, Robert Reid-Pharr interrogates the white supremacist and capitalist and imperialistic underpinnings of the university, while also questioning the way that new “studies” programs, that claim to challenge these power structures, unwittingly serve to reinforce them:

I think that it gives far too much away to suggest that sexuality studies, gay and lesbian studies, Asian studies, Latin American studies, African American and Africana studies or postcolonial studies somehow concern themselves with identity, while those fields to which we most (un)consciously pay allegiance—English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, and Dutch, to name the most obvious—do not. On the contrary, I suspect that one of the things announced by attaching the ugly label studies to identity knowledges forty years after they were first introduced  into American universities is to reiterate the notion that not only are they still “emerging,” but also that they can never be recognized as having arrived, never be understood to be fully engaged with “the universal” until they forthrightly substitute European and American provincialisms for their own cultural and ideological specificities. (150)

Over-Education and the Black Academic Novel

Given these debates over black intellectual life and the academic profession, the black academic novel, featuring professors and students as characters, is a creative form that is well-situated to examine the role of the university in the politics of the black intellectual. By exploring fictional representations of black intellectual life within the walls of the university and beyond them, the black academic novel has served as rich terrain for addressing the politics of the black intellectual.

I was drawn to black academic novels precisely because they confront this complex relationship between higher education and black identity.  In black academic fiction one finds depictions of black scholars wrestling with the meaning of higher education, and the expectations that are placed upon them to be racial representatives and spokespersons, whether or not they ever intended to apply for these positions, and even if they insist this should not be the case.

These novelists acknowledge that the academy is only one site of knowledge production, but reaffirm that it is an important one.  I am drawn to these novels in the way that they critically analyze the academy, and even because they tend to view the academy with some reticence and suspicion.  While these novels focus on institutions of higher education, I believe that they also represent some of the most productive thinking available about black intellectuals, whether those intellectuals work inside or outside of the academy. By addressing questions of race, community, authenticity, gender and sexuality, these works expand the potentials of black intellectual practice and provide valuable lessons on the ethics of intellectual practice itself.

In my dissertation I have tried to compile much of what I have learned about black academic novels so far, and this is just the beginning.  For now, I have a working bibliography of Black Academic Fiction posted on this blog, along with some short essays about a few specific academic novels, and I’ll be adding more close readings of specific works over the next few months. Though I’ve been laboring at this for a while, I know I’ve just scratched the surface.  I’m looking forward to discovering and reading more of these novels, stories, plays and films, and I fully expect that I will continue to revise and refine some of the ideas that I have begun to explore in this project.

Works Cited:

Anderson, James. The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935.  Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.

Cooper, Anna Julia.  The Voice of Anna Julia Cooper: Including A Voice from the South and Other Important Essays, Papers and Letters.  Edited by Charles Lemert and Esme Bahn.  Lanham, MD: Rowan and Littlefield, 1998.

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. 1845. New York: Norton, 1996.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr.  Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the “Racial” Self. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Johnson, Karen A. “‘In Service for the Common Good’: Anna Julia Cooper and Adult Education.” African American Review. 43.1 (Spring 2009): 45-56

Reid-Pharr, Robert.  “Tarrying with ‘Private Parts.’” Feminist Formations. 25.3 (2013): 149-153.  Muse. Web. 23 February 2014.

Scarborough, William Sanders.  “The Educated Negro and His Mission.”  Occasional Papers – American Negro Academy, Washington D.C.  8 (1903): 1-11.  The American Negro Academy Occasional Papers, 1-22.  New York: AMS, 1970.

West, Kanye.  “School Spirit Skit 1.” “School Spirit.”  “Lil Jimmy Skit.” College Dropout.  Roc-A-Fella, 2004. CD.

Wilder, Craig Steven. Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities.  New York: Bloomsbury, 2013.

Key and Peele on College Movies

I don’t watch the Key and Peele show regularly, but I happened to catch a rerun earlier today and saw this sketch from last year.  It’s a pretty silly routine where they make fun of the difference between white college movies and black college movies using the classic comedy template of “white people do this, black people do that.”  I was delighted to run across this bit, which I take as yet another example of academic fiction in the popular consciousness. As someone pointed out in the YouTube comments, the film How High does bust their “theory” that there are no college movies featuring black folks that are all about partying and having fun. Though K&P are still right, because the comic energy in that movie comes from the “fish out of water” story of two young black men (Method Man and Redman) who one would not expect to see as students on an Ivy League campus. (And yes, I know I totally missed How High in my list of academic movies.   I finally viewed it a couple of months ago, and was shocked to see Spalding Gray made a cameo in it. Who knew?!)

So anyway, here’s Key and Peele, in the first clip joking about the subject matter of college movies, and in the second clip doing a skit about a couple of black frat brothers performing a branding ritual that goes hilariously wrong.

Check out John Conklin’s Campus Life in the Movies for more (serious) critical analysis of academia on screen.

P.S. The dissertation is mostly done and I’m defending in the fall.  I swear!