In Higher Ed, There’s More than One Kind of Diversity
2007 may be remembered as the year that intra-racial diversity finally hit the news. From college dailies to academic weeklies to mainstream newspapers, reporters rushed to Harvard and other selective college campuses to address what has been portrayed as the overrepresentation at such schools of the children of Black immigrants and the underrepresentation at those same institutions of the descendants of U.S. Blacks. In so doing, they exposed the failure of college and university admission offices to understand the vast diversity that exists within Blackness, noting that, at Ivy League institutions in particular, outreach and recruitment efforts created in response to the lasting effects of slavery and Jim Crow upon Blacks of U.S. were disproportionately benefitting students of African descent whose parents were born outside of the U.S.
The downside of this reporting is that it could fan the flames of intra-diasporic competition and dissension. The upside is that it underscores the wide range of nationalities, ethnicities, and cultures that constitute the Black population of the United States. As diverse our ethnicities may be, however, we — the Black people of the U.S. — seem to be of one mind (or maybe two) when it comes to choosing a graduate program.
A recent report in the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education (JBHE Weekly Bulletin for 12/17/07) revealed that more than 50 percent of all Black graduate students are enrolled in either business or education programs. This follow passage from the JBHE Bulletin explains the current trend:
A new report from the Graduate Record Examinations Board and the Council of Graduate Schools finds that among all black graduate students, 31 percent were enrolled in graduate education degree programs. Another 22 percent were enrolled in graduate business programs. No other graduate field had more than 10 percent of black graduate students.
These statistics reveal a key tension in Black students’ pursuit of higher education. It is the tension between Black America’s belief in the value of education and Black America’s general ambivalence toward the notion of learning for learning’s sake.
Do not misunderstand where I am going with this assertion. I do not believe that Black people are resistant to or opposed to higher education. In fact, I vehemently reject the accusation by John McWhorter, Bill Cosby, and other prominent Black voices that African Americans somehow associate good grades and the pursuit of education with “acting white.” Indeed, people who pay attention to what African Americans express about their beliefs (as opposed to the insults that angry teens might hurl at their schoolmates) understand that U.S. Black people believe deeply in education — as a ticket to upward mobility, as a stamp of legitimacy necessary for success in a white-dominated workplace, and as a profound rejection of the subordinated status that Euro-dominant mainstream has encouraged us to occupy for so long.
When I say, then, that many Black Americans feel a general ambivalence toward the notion of learning for learning’s sake — toward the acquisition of knowledge undertaken solely for the purpose of knowing and, similiarly, toward undertaking the pursuit of a line of scholarly inquiry as one’s life work — I mean that for many U.S. Blacks the pursuit of higher education is tantamount to upgrading life’s toolkit for success. Education is undertaken pragmatically, and it is embraced as the key which will open the door to post-graduate stability and prosperity.
At the undergraduate level this means that Black business and economics majors outnumber Black science and math majors; Black journalism and communications majors outnumber Black English majors; and history, philosophy, language, music, and art majors are rare or even non-existent.
At the graduate level, business and education are the fields of choice; and thus the cycle is perpetuated. As long as African American graduate students flock to business and education, and as long as they underenroll in other disciplines, there will continue to be a dearth of Black professors in medicine, in law, and in most academic fields. Black students need Black mentors in all fields, to inform them of the possibilities for post-graduate study in those fields, and to help them understand the important links between undergraduate disciplinary studies in English, history, philosophy, and modern languages and success in careers like advertising, law enforcement, politics, and public policy, or to advise them in some of the important ways that majoring not only in the sciences and social sciences, but in the humanities and arts as well can lay a strong foundation for graduate study in medicine, law and — yes — even business.
In my life, it was my direct classroom contact with African American English professors Dorothy Denniston and Michael Harper that made real to me the possibility that my passion for this subject could become a viable career. On the other hand, the absence at my undergraduate institution of Black art professors conveyed to me a completely different message about my other great love, the visual arts. As far as I could see, unless I was wealthy and white, there would be no real work for me as an artmaker; there was no point in even enrolling in a course in that department. Since that time I have, of course, learned differently; and even though I am very happy in my career as a literature professor, I cannot help but wonder how different my life might have been if I had had personal contact with even one Black art professional.
I was lucky. Although I was turned off from pursuing one of my great pleasures, I have found great satisfaction and joy in the pursuit of another of my fields of choice. But how many budding painters, engineers, surgeons, archivists, and legal scholars of African descent will be turned off by the absence of Black mentors and role models in their areas of interest? How many great Black artists or physicists, philosophers or historians put these passions aside in favor of those career paths that appear to be more welcoming to Black people?
Until Black students enroll in medical, law, and Ph.D. programs with the same enthusiasm that they undertake studies toward the M.B.A. and the Ed.D., institutions will have to develop innovative strategies for introducing Black students to the possibilities that exist for success, fulfillment, and career satisfaction beyond the fields of business and education.
As I close this post, I cannot help but think of how much it meant to me to encounter real live Black professors of English. The experience of studying with people of African descent who shared my passion for reading, writing, and thinking about literature was transforming. More than any diploma, award, or academic honor, their reflection of my academic interests and passions validated my pursuit of literature study, during my undergraduate years and for many years after.
I feel great sadness for those Black students who will never have a similar experience. I trust in their capacity to find validation for their interests and affirmation of the possibilities available to them as scholars without the benefit same-race role models; but I still look ahead to the day when no African, African American, or Afro-Caribbean student at any institution will have to wonder whether or not Black folks can succeed. I look ahead to the time when the presence of Black men and women, as full-time, tenure-track faculty in all disciplines, at all institutions will make such questions obsolete.
Posted by Ajuan Mance