Black On Campus
Higher Education and the African American Experience

Talking Points: Cora Daniels on the Tyranny of Low Expectations

October 6th, 2008 by Ajuan Mance

Cora Daniels

At [my husband’s predominantly white] prep school the students did not wear caps and gowns at graduation. Not at graduation from elementary school, not at junior high (or middle school in prep lingo), and not at their high school graduation, either. Instead they were required to wear dress shirts, ties, and jackets just as they did every day to class. The thinking was that the first time students should wear caps and gowns was the moment they graduated from college. And the expectation was that everyone at his prep school would certainly see that moment. These are expectations at their highest. I donned my first cap and gown when I “graduated” from Head Start.

–Cora Daniels in Ghetto Nation: Dispatches from America’s Culture War


This quote speaks to that subtle and insidious lowering of expectations that occurs when parents, teachers, and other authority figures reward young people for completing tasks or taking on responsibilities that would, in other contexts be considered minimally acceptable or commonplace. You can see it when, for example, a mother praises her son for “taking care of his responsibilities” (parenting his children); when a father or supports his claim that his daughter is a “good kid” because she is “in school, doesn’t use drugs, and has never been arrested”; or, in the type of scene that the author describes, in which children are clad in the child’s version of academic regalia and celebrated for completing kindergarten, grammar school, or middle school. Such behavior from adults communicates to young people that they are only capable of these types of minimally acceptable outcomes; if the adults in their midst expect so little from them, then they will quite likely expect even less from themselves.

Is this a possible explanation for African American students’ tendency to perform less well at the college level than non-Black counterparts with similar class and family backgrounds? Could it be that since getting accepted to college already surpasses most Americans’ understanding of what U.S. Black people are capable of achieving, distinguishing oneself academically once on campus feels either out of reach or unnecessary for an African American student who has already achieved more than anyone might expect of him/her simply by meeting minimal requirements for remaining enrolled?


Biographical Notes: Cora Daniels is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in Fortune, the New York Times, Essence, O: The Oprah Magazine, USA Today, Heart & Soul, FSB: Fortune Small Business, and Savoy. She is a native New Yorker who was born and raised in Brooklyn. She holds a B.A. from Yale University (history) and a master’s degree from the Columbia University School of Journalism. Her first book, Black Power Inc., appeared in 2004. Cora Daniels lives in Brooklyn with her husband and daughter.

Posted by Ajuan Mance

Posted in Achivement Gap, African American Students, Black Students, Cora Daniels, Current Events, Ghetto Nation, Higher Education, race

2 Responses



    I agree that white prep schools treat junior high and high school graduations as just part of the path to a degree.

    Unfortunately, there are many blacks who do not realize that in white circles, among those who are college-educated, a person with a high school diploma is referred to as UNEDUCATED.

    Degreed black folks rarely refer to someone with a high school diploma as uneducated!

    This is the difference in expectations…these are not just differences in expectations by race but also by class.

    Peace, blessings and DUNAMIS!

  2. Minx.Lee

    that’s interesting,
    tell me, should we give gifts to children once they graduate? OR is that giving them the impression consumerism is a reward for doing what your suppose to?

    Nothing wrong with having a little ceremony. It IS just a path to a degree.