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The Source of the RiverThe Source of the River - Clueless in Academe
January 16, 2004

The link between race and education is complex, finds Terence Kealey.

Clark Kerr, who died recently, was the president of the University of California who once said that the job of a university president was "to provide sex for the students, athletics for the alumni and parking for the faculty". Kerr, in short, understood that an era whose masses expect access to university would require those universities to market themselves on non-academic grounds. But how accessible are universities in practice?

In The Source of the River , four sociologists from the University of Pennsylvania ask about race. And, unsurprisingly, they find that undergraduate admission to elite higher education in the US is racially skewed. Remarkably, half of all Asians (Asians in the US being largely Oriental rather than from the Indian subcontinent) of college age attend university. A third of whites do - as do a third of blacks - but only a quarter of Latinos do. Yet blacks drop out, as do Latinos, so while 30 per cent of all whites of the relevant age group graduate, only 15 per cent of blacks and 10 per cent of Latinos do. The statistics on Asians are not yet complete, but Asians probably out-perform whites. The US is no melting pot, higher education-wise. Whites and Asians do well, blacks and Latinos do not.

How do we explain this pattern? Douglas Massey et al review the many hypotheses that investigators have invoked. Different people at different times have proposed that racial correlations with class, family income, social support structures, cultural expectations, intelligence or SATs (Scholastic Aptitude Tests) could explain the racial skew. Certain attitudes, moreover, might correlate with different races. The "theory of oppositional culture" argues that involuntary immigrants such as blacks will reject whites' culture (and therefore whites' universities) while voluntary immigrants such as Asians will embrace it.

Having set the scene by reviewing the above literature (of which the most dramatic finding was that whites and Asians markedly outperform blacks and Latinos on national SAT scores) Massey et al then performed their own research. They asked a large number of students (from many elite US institutions) to complete exhaustive questionnaires on their race, backgrounds, attitudes and experiences at college. They found that it is class that matters. White and Asian students are generally middle class, blacks and Latinos are not, and social class dictates educational outcome.

Homes also matter. The socially homogeneous American suburbs provide good schools and calm existences, but the socially diverse inner cities are violent and disruptive, which militates against education. Gender matters.

There are twice as many black girls in US higher education as black boys because "a third to a half of all college-age black men are in prison, on parole, or under court supervision". And because US blacks are reluctant to cross-date (they are loathe to "act white") Massey et al fear for black girls' social lives in a way that must amuse the British reader (who is familiar with black girls simply going out with white boys).

Nonetheless, this is a beautifully written book. Each word is so carefully chosen and the style so limpid that the text is a pleasure to read. I was reminded of Conrad. And although the book raises the occasional cross-Atlantic difficulty (not all British readers will know what an American parochial school is) the writing is quietly humorous.

This book is not, of course, wholly original: we have long known that blacks and Latinos are underrepresented on American campuses, and ever since John Marks' work in the UK during the early 1980s we have also known that class is the major determinant of educational outcome. Yet Massey et al are beginning to dissect how class and race mediate their effects. And the story is complex. White parents are more supportive of their children, and more involved in their children's lives (to the extent, for example, of knowing who their friends are) than are black parents, who are likely to be authoritarian and distant. Yet "Asian parents were the least compassionate and most strict of all groups", so ruling out any facile connection between styles of parenting and educational outcome. And immigrant blacks perform markedly better than American-born blacks (the Colin Powell phenomenon).

Black students, unexpectedly perhaps, report the highest levels of self-esteem and self-efficacy, while Latinos the lowest. Does this mean, Massey et al ask, that black self-esteem, by promoting overconfidence, militates against educational attainment? Or does it mean that only blacks with high self-esteem can claw their way out of their disadvantaged backgrounds? In which case, why are Latinos so different? Massey et al can find no easy answer, even if they do confirm that the blacks and Latinos who get to university come from micro-cultures where working hard is not despised as "acting white". Yet, sometimes blacks and Latinos, having got to university, cease to work hard - for fear of failing as blacks and Latinos.

Thus do the different empirical findings accumulate in this book without undermining its major conclusion that class and money rather than race per se determine educational outcome. That is a sufficiently important finding to deserve proper chronicling: it is also an encouraging one because class, unlike race, is not immutable. And let us rejoice that one long-standing concern, the underrepresentation of women on campus (at least as students), is no longer a problem. In short, this is a book that should be bought and read by every serious student of education. It is a non-boring book of record.

Clueless in Academe is charming. It should be read on a Sunday afternoon by the fire as darkness falls and as the reader chuckles in recognition over the tales told of scholars and students. Gerald Graff is professor of English and education at the University of Illinois in Chicago and he has written many books including Beyond the Culture Wars . His current theme is intellectual access. His concern is that school and university teachers repel students by presenting a dead, pasteurised version of scholarship.

True scholarship and true art, Graff maintains, are born of argument and conflict as described, say, by Thomas Kuhn in his shifting of paradigms or by Picasso when he said: "Painting is not done to decorate apartments, it is an instrument of war."

Graff's point is that young people naturally understand argument (no parent of a young child reluctant to go to bed early need doubt that statement) but because schoolteachers and university professors present a sterile vision of scholarship, students disengage. Graff wants to re-engage them in the culture of argument, in the formal academic sense. So the key chapter in this book, "Why Johnny can't argue", provides a primer for argument: it provides a structure by which a student learns to present one side and then the other side of a debate before concluding with the student's own views.

And Graff would teach art not by prioritising the students' unvarnished study of paintings but by prioritising their reading of the contemporaneous critics.

Before getting to that chapter, however, Graff takes us through a number of interesting points. First, scholarship today is not what it was 100 years ago. Today, many scholars are fun and are proud to be intellectuals, competing with journalists, think-tankers and politicians in their breadth of debate. And, in the chapter "The university is popular culture but doesn't know it yet", Graff shows how, ineluctably, the better academics are even learning to write.

Along the way he provides some entertaining aperçus . For example, the school day of the average pupil is obviously absurd. No one who is seriously interested in study would choose to address particular subjects in 45-minute bites interspersed with 45-minute bites of different subjects.

And why do teachers complain that students are more interested in popular culture when they, the teachers, make only a fraction of the effort of Hollywood in tempting students to study? From these wry observations, we learn that Graff writes as a natural scholar for other natural scholars about the problems of engaging non-natural scholars. And we learn that he too believes it his job "to provide sex for the students, athletics for the alumni and parking for the faculty", the better to lure them into his web of study.

Education is big business because it matters so much. The more education a person receives, the better that person subsequently does in life, not only materially but also personally in terms of marriage stability, job fulfilment, longevity, suicide rate, self-esteem and other psychological and sociological indices. We do not really know why education is such a good investment. The economists acknowledge the "human capital" theory, which proposes that education improves a person's mind, but the economists also acknowledge the "lemon" theory, by which education does nothing for a person's abilities but simply provides putative employers with a guide ("this person is good at passing exams, she'll make a good employee").

Either way, education matters and so it becomes political. Kerr was sacked from his job at the University of California in 1966 by newly elected governor Ronald Reagan. But these two books, though politically aware, eschew the partisan for the thoughtful. They are tributes to that wonderful machine, contemporary US higher education.

Terence Kealey is vice-chancellor, University of Buckingham.

The Source of the RiverThe Source of the River: The Social Origins of Freshmen at America's Selective Colleges and Universities

Author - Douglas S. Massey, Camille Z. Charles, Garvey F. Lundy and Mary J. Fischer
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Pages - 283
Price - £19.95
ISBN - 0 691 11326 2

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