They Can’t Read or Write, But They Sure Can Agitate

If the City University of New York can’t teach, it does serve as a source of amusement from time to time. The other day a certain Renate Bridenthal, described in the papers as a professor of history, was arrested for disorderly conduct. The professor, in the company of a number of adolescent protesters, was trying to prevent the trustees of her woebegone institution from stopping the practice of admitting illiterates to CUNY.

She is quoted in the papers declaring that, “I got to that moment when I saw red.” Mind you, we have a 62-year-old teacher protesting the exclusion of students who can’t read, write or do arithmetic from a place calling itself a university. “Something told me I can’t live in a world like this, that’s so messed up. I’m not suicidal. I love life. But the feeling that comes up is like, ‘Banzai.’ You’ve just got to take a stand … I studied German history, and then there was a social Darwinian tendency where they once talked about ‘useless eaters,’ people who consumed but did not produce, or asocial types who did not conform … Not to draw too many invidious comparisons, but I see that atmosphere coming down. We’re on a slippery slope where we accept first this, then that, unwilling to resist. That’s what drove me to the street.”

Perhaps Ms. Bridenthal should be sent back down to high school with her ignorant charges to take a remedial course or two in clear thinking. And speaking of seeing Red or red, the professor’s stand reminds me of the story Serge Schmemann tells in his recent book, Echoes of a Native Land: Two Centuries of a Russian Village , about the Soviets destroying the water pump and distribution system in one village because the nearby villages did not have one. The reactionary educationalists who dominate CUNY believe it is better to educate nobody if they can’t educate everybody, which they have demonstrated over a half a century that they cannot do. The nobody-learns-unless-everybody-learns principle sacrifices the highly motivated and the most gifted to the humiliating egalitarianism we have come to associate with organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union. Failing to achieve equal justice, the Bridenthal school of social reaction takes to the streets in defense of equal injustice for all. What women and men like her stand for is far less forgivable than the enraged peasantry using their firebrands to destroy what they don’t understand.

The use of once-glorious liberal slogans to satisfy social grudges, to level people hoping to distinguish themselves through superior work, to injure political opponents and to gain cushy jobs, has worked well enough to all but destroy CUNY. It seems safe to say Ms. Bridenthal and her associates have come close to establishing Animal Farm in their quadrant of the groves of academe.

Neither the New York school system nor systems elsewhere in America have ever succeeded in educating everybody. In the era when standards were higher, a phrase which ought not to be used without many qualifications, a large fraction of the children dropped out of school early, having learned very little. Times changed, truancy and child labor laws were passed, and children were forced to stay in school, but no more learning took place than before. The net effect has been to impede the education of children who are able and desirous of learning.

Over the last 50 years or so, the grammar schools passed their failures on to the high schools, which in their turn clotted their classrooms with nonlearners of every sort. Another spin of the wheel, and the high school failures were passed on to places like CUNY. The suspicion is rife that CUNY has had no success with nonlearners either, but that they are graduated anyway and sent on their way with their worthless diplomas. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Gov. George Pataki and the board of trustees are trying to kill off an unspeakably costly system.

Teaching first-grade skills at the first-year college level is prohibitively expensive. Now, the nonlearners are to be encouraged to go to community colleges to master their ABC’s, but that makes little more sense pedagogically or financially. Not for the kookaburras on the faculty at CUNY, however. One professor, a certain David Lavin, was quoted saying that, “A lot of students start out with no clear idea of what they want to do and may find the overall climate of community colleges less intellectually stimulating … It leads to lower educational aspirations and more of an emphasis on vocational training.” I ask you, what do people who can’t read or write find that is so uniquely intellectually stimulating it can only be got at a university? Maybe this Doctor Professor Lavin isn’t talking about cerebral stimulations, but what he calls “lower educational aspirations.” Beware of people who use the word “aspiration.” They are cut from the same cloth as those who say “resources” when they mean money. It would seem the major educational aspiration of college-student illiterates is to take up classroom seats that might otherwise go to students with college-level skills. Clog up a college with nonlearners and before you know it, everybody is a nonlearner. It’s the communists destroying the water pump again.

The doctor professor also fears that demoting the incompetent and incapable to community colleges will lead to “more of an emphasis on vocational training.” God save us from such woe! Think of the life a young person thus doomed has to look forward to. It often turns out that vocational training brings on the tragedy of gainful employment, and then, next, before the victim understands what’s happening to him or her, he or she has a family, a house, a car and other emoluments which more than a few doctor professors at CUNY give every outward appearance of enjoying for themselves but, in the tradition of Animal Farm , may not approve for others.

We are entering a period when the boomers’ children are going to college. There aren’t enough seats on the campus for those of them who can read and write. We are going to have to expand the already extensive use of off-campus, or distance, learning, using a variety of electronic means. There already are people classified as full-time students who are actually on campus, face to face with their instructors and fellow students, for only a couple of weeks per semester. Under the circumstances, cluttering up the quad with academic nonstarters, nonlearners and other dead weight is indefensible. Not that these people should be permanently shut out from the chance of learning. Today’s nonstarter can be tomorrow’s success. Distance learning, which is up and running in New York through New York University and the New School for Social Research, makes it possible for nonlearners and ne’er-do-wells to catch up and go ahead. It should go without saying, but can’t in the present climate, that only students with gumption–mere aspirations won’t do–will take advantage of that or any other educational opportunity.

As for CUNY, it will take more than a change in admissions policies to get the joint up to snuff again. The news that Ruth Messinger, after having failed to get a job anywhere else, is being hired into CUNY’s department of urban studies is dismaying. What was that for? To turn the place into a dustbin for shopworn, defeated, out-of-office politicians? Anyone who heard her campaign speeches last year knows she has little to offer her students save reactionary exhortations to stick to the nostrums of the past. There’s a neat picture–the sad-sack Ms. Messinger lecturing to the students enrolled in Looking Backward 101, who will sit, playing electronic thumb games or listening to their Walkmen. They won’t be taking notes because they can’t write, and they won’t be needing their book lists because they can’t read. They Can’t Read or Write, But They Sure Can Agitate