THE CITY AND THE CITY COLLEGE:
AN OFF-CAMPUS, OFF-CAMERA PERSPECTIVE
On the afternoon when Finley caught fire, the day when the student center, at City College, broke into a terrible blaze, I went walking around the neighborhood. Kids from nearby elementary schools were being rushed to hypothetical safety, away from the smoke. One of them sat on the fender of an old car. “You can do what you want,” he was saying to his nine year old companion. “I’ll go to college. I’m going to Harlem University.”
Couple of blocks ahead and, from Amsterdam Avenue, you could look down at the Administration Building that looms like a glassy dead end. The street leading steeply up to where I stood, that street, takes you past the stadium that mostly provides for a gathering of spectators. But spectators have been scarce in the vicinity. Everybody, cops, students, politicians, have mingled in the scene according to convictions on the flare. At the corner of this street, you face a DO NOT ENTER sign. Two boys were throwing rocks at this sign. They seemed about ten or eleven years old. I wondered where they had found loose stones; the whole area peels down to stony surface.
Except for the flames and the wind in the trees and the people rearranging themselves, into groups, it is a circumstance of stone.
The City College version of change related to black life, differs from the staging elsewhere. Here, a people of one experience and a place of separate history intertwine within a symbolic reality.
The College dominates a hillside in Harlem—that community the world regards as the metaphor, as well as the living fulcrum, of Black America. The college simply calls itself The City College. And these two, community and school, have formulated a partly unreal theatre about the flesh and bone burial that happens, every day, in the public schools of New York.
In any segment of the giant, City University, the numbers of Black students attending are ridiculously small. In 1967, City College could claim a mere 5.1% representation of Black and Puerto Rican students among the full-time, fully matriculated. Yet the College continues to term itself The City College, and City College continues to pose itself, like a weird dream, inside an unrepresented Harlem that must deal with the nightmare of children destroyed.
So the campus lies inside the city walls. But people should remember how: it lies inside, imperfectly. Black students, speaking on any campus, speak as special representatives, not as spokesmen of the prevailing, Black experience. They constitute a freak fringe that has survived, in New York City, a drop-out rate estimated at 65%. They point themselves towards privileges and power the younger brothers and sisters cannot easily imagine.
Example: A few years ago, the seventeen year old Black star of a motion picture, about Harlem, was asked what he would like to do. “I like to learn how to read, for myself. You think I could go to a school like that?” He was sure you had to go to a private school, if you wanted to learn how to read. The casting director reported that his continuing difficulty had been the finding of Black kids who knew how to read words, lines.
More recently, a fifteen year old girl, who is Black, entered a private school, on a visiting basis. The visit would last as long as the Bureau of Child Welfare took to arrange space in one of the city’s “shelters.” A gifted poet, trained by teacher hostilities to ignore classroom education, this child now suffers a first awareness of deficiencies that rank her somewhere among students in the third grade, whenever she puts anything on paper. Off paper, in discussion, she ranks among the most articulate and genuinely wise. (How do you grade wisdom?) She and the boy represent the general results of spending the best hours of your best years up against enemy adults and alien, useless study. They spend themselves, they are forced to spend themselves in compulsory attention to people convinced that children are ignorant, and that Black children are stupid, besides. At City College, teaching in the S.E.E.K. program means that you talk with Black and Puerto Rican students who privately confide what they believe; they have been taught to believe they will fail. The S.E.E.K. program enables those students to enter college, competitively.
For a year or so, the students undertake remedial and preparatory courses intended to compensate for the butchery performed by city high schools. More often than not, it is the spirit of the student that requires assistance and support; scholastic accomplishment flows readily, afterward. However, even S.E.E.K. students constitute an elite struggling at a far distance from the usual thousands upon thousands anonymous and waiting for rescue nowhere in sight.
If you balance between campus ritual and the social reality implied, you may very well find yourself looking into the eyes of a Black child who will never be seen on television, or heard on the radio. In practical terms, nobody knows he’s alive unless he breaks a window.
And yet, the unreal drama at City College speaks for his life. Probably the ritual merely bewilders his ideas about growing up. As standardized, Black students ask for change. No one pays attention. Black students ask for negotiations. No one pays attention. (Time passes. Winter turns to spring.) Black students demand negotiations. No one pays attention. Finally, the students assert their exasperation at the expense of private property. This leads to public announcement of a public crisis.
Extreme limitation of form and compass characterize the ritual. It is limited to those affected by a shared situation. The dynamics stem from a symbiosis; if there’s no school, there can be no students. And vice versa.
Interdependency, then, serves as the premise for the ritual. When the dynamics lead to a public display of differences, the conflict between students and school is actually being challenged, per se. In effect, Black students request a greater enmeshment with the institution. They propose that the college adapt its identity to their own, even as they, per force, adapt themselves to the college. Identity requires external, positive confirmation. And Black students demand positive confirmation of the identity they affirm with their lives. They make this demand of the institution responsible for the future of their lives. The whole process is limited and logical.
But it may simply bewilder the Black child who does not enjoy the commitment of any school. His school has not accepted him. He is compelled to line the hallways, and sit in his seat. Or leave. He is absolutely dispensable because no competition attaches to his entry or departure; you start at six and you can leave when you’re sixteen. That’s the game.
At City College, the ritual altered the self-centered norm of crisis. Among the five demands posited by the Black and Puerto Rican students there, the fourth reads as follows:
“The racial composition of the entering class to reflect the Black and Puerto Rican Population of the NY City Schools.”
Clearly, the fourth demand reached outside the University province and into high school habits of student tragedy. For instance, the fourth demand reaches hard into the middle of the strange mess at Benjamin Franklin H.S., the predominantly Black and Puerto Rican high school nearest City College, where the academic diploma rate steadies at 1.2%. If the majority of Black and Puerto Rican students never receive an academic diploma, (instead they are shunted into courses leading to a “General” diploma that means you don’t even learn how to type), and since these students are the majority of the students in the city schools, how can the College entering class reflect that majority? Either the high schools or the College would have to change almost beyond current planning possibilities. To satisfy the fourth demand, New York City could no longer afford to maintain a 65% drop out rate for students of color, or a 1.2% academic diploma rate at any high school.
Today there is nothing wrong with the schools. The schools, as systems of elimination, are working perfectly well, and serving a purpose people should begin to wonder about. The fourth demand would necessitate the schools serving the purpose of preparation. In order to secure student commitment, high school curriculum, and college, would have to appear useful. (Forty years ago, the white, white-haired Harvard scholar, A.N. Whitehead, wrote down some ideas concerning education. Mainly, the man said: If you can’t use it, throw the book away. Well, Whitehead lives in Blackface. Plus, Blackface making up its own mind about books. Whether by dropping out, or by occupying a building, Black students are saying, I can’t use it, give me something else.)
And so it happens that the fourth demand is the one demand that merits public attention. The others would benefit from privacy between students and school. The fourth demand is likewise the one demand neither the President of City College, nor the Chancellor of the City University, nor the Board of Higher Education can see their way, to promise. Yet it is the single issue fundamentally involving the College as a teaching institute: The College would have to teach the lower grades how to teach children to qualify, in competition. And the College would have to learn the interests and the needs and the problems and the solutions the new College student would embody: the College would have to learn what the new candidates know, and then arrange for their further instruction.
Regardless how the ritual of City College is resolved, something has happened, now, that spreads past Harlem and past the entire city. The words of the place, City College, have been juxtaposed to the life Harlem signifies, and that juxtaposition has entered the consciousness of all kinds of people, including little kids.
If the fourth demand waters [sic] away in negotiation, there will be no Harlem University, in any sense. Nor will there be a City College, in any sense. It might be helpful to invite 100 children, from the local elementary schools, to come to an assortment of College classes, for one week. Then, perhaps, the participants of the ritual, (politicians, students, faculty, administrators) could assemble themselves, and listen to the children. Let them speak to the implications of the fourth demand. They are the implications.
After one week at City College, would they want to attend such a school?
Regardless of the dropout rate, the Black and Puerto Rican students comprise the total, future student population. Their response, the children’s rejection of the College, or the hopes inspired, should guide long-ranging reforms of subject matter and method. Their lack of response, the apparent incongruity of their small appearance at the big school, should provide face and voice for the fourth demand. It is a demand to be saved from dying out of the picture.