- The American Conservative - https://www.theamericanconservative.com -

Maybe The Problem Is You

From the front lines of Ivy League privilege: [1]

“I was accepted as the class of 2014,” Nissy Aya, CC ’16, said. “I will not receive a degree until 2016, if that is any marker of how hard it has been for me to get through this institution.”

Aya was a panelist at an open discussion on Wednesday evening where students and faculty called for more inclusive curricula and greater centralization of resources for marginalized communities at Columbia—particularly for students of color.

Why has it been so hard for Nissy Aya to get her degree on time? She was forced to read books by white people:

Aya said that the the Core Curriculum further silences students of color by requiring students to read texts that ignore the existence of marginalized people and their histories.

“It’s traumatizing to sit in Core classes,” Aya said. “We are looking at history through the lens of these powerful, white men. I have no power or agency as a black woman, so where do I fit in?”

Aya mentioned that even in her most recent Art Humanities class, the word “primitive” was used five times to describe Congolese art—a label she did not speak up against because she was tired of already having worked that day to address so many other instances of racism and discrimination, she said.

Hey Nissy Aya, maybe the problem is you — and maybe some grown-up at the university needs to tell you that. As the Daily Caller [2] points out, Columbia has one of the highest four-year graduation rates in the country. [3]Maybe Nissy Aya didn’t study hard enough. I graduated on time by the skin of my teeth because I was lazy, and didn’t study hard enough in one class I found difficult and boring. If the university has a stellar four-year graduation rate, that suggests that the problem is more likely to lie with Nissy Aya than with the university. Can we even say that these days?

If a white kid were studying jazz at Juilliard, would he get away with blaming identity trauma for failing his classes, saying that he had to listen to too many black jazz composers? Could a black student studying classical music at the same institution get away with claiming trauma because all the composers were Dead White European Males? Come on.

The college professor who tipped me off to this Columbia story said:

Our patrimony is under assault. At some point someone just has to tell these kids the truth: some civilizations are better than others. But that has nothing to do with you. You are not inexorably linked to your ancestors. You can appropriate all the good insights anywhere you find them. To deny yourself goodness, truth, and beauty wherever it is, you wind up diminishing your own dignity, treating yourself as if you were no more than your color or your genes.

The African-American linguist John McWhorter talked about the “self-sabotage” of students like this Columbia student in his 2001 book Losing the Race [4]. Ward Connerly summed up the argument in his review [5]of the book:

As John McWhorter explains in his new book, Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America, posturing like that has come to largely define what it means to be black in America.

McWhorter, a linguistics professor at Berkeley, traces this posturing to three cultural diseases: victimology, separatism, and anti-intellectualism. He demonstrates that these strains infect the entire spectrum of “black” culture. From the black student pursuing “doctorial” studies to a black-student recruiter from Berkeley worried that black students who get into Berkeley without preferences “aren’t concerned with nurturing an African-American presence,” McWhorter introduces us to characters we recognize and shows how their words and actions reveal their belief in these cultural diseases.

Reader Richao put together a great Storify page collecting the successive tweets of an Islamic libertarian, [6] explaining how the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves dictate our path through life. It ends like this:

Advertisement
66 Comments (Open | Close)

66 Comments To "Maybe The Problem Is You"

#1 Comment By Michael Guarino On November 21, 2015 @ 4:43 pm

Guess what? Those affirmative action babies were high school standouts. Beyond that, most of them aren’t terribly upset about going to college and having to read Plato, Aristotle, Montesquieu or Rousseau, or Shakespeare, Milton, Hawthorne, or Faulkner.

The high school graduating class each year is roughly 3.3 million people. A pretty strict standard for high school standout (and one you often see used) is top 10%. That yields 330 thousand every year. Each class at the Ivy League might compose something like 10,000 student. Simply put, you need to be much better than a high school standout to actual earn a place in the cream of the crop of American higher education. And I am actually being generous. Ivy League schools are basically international institutions now; the number of potential applicants is much larger than the number of recent American high school graduates.

The Ivy League knows they will not be able to get a desirable portion of African-American students with a purely meritocratic bar, so they explicitly do not have one. Alek provides definitive evidence of that.

Finally, the claim that students are not upset about reading Aristotle and Milton is easily contradicted by the frequent complaints about having to read “dead white men.” These complaints do not attempt to claim that “dead white men” are too common, but that they are irrelevant or morally superseded. It exists, it is highly anti-intellectual, and it should be a trivial matter to oppose it.

#2 Comment By Michael Guarino On November 21, 2015 @ 10:24 pm

*I meant to say the combined incoming class at all Ivy League schools might amount to 10000 students. I did not look that up, though.

#3 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On November 21, 2015 @ 10:44 pm

Finally, the claim that students are not upset about reading Aristotle and Milton is easily contradicted by the frequent complaints about having to read “dead white men.”

Oh yes, a pile of anecdotes and lurid headlines trumps statistic about actual courses and syllabus of actual course content any day, and the equally anecdotal testimony of professors who teach these subjects can be dismissed because, because, because it “is easily contradicted.”

As William Henry put it in his book In Defense of Elitism, it is not the same thing to have put a man on the moon and to have put a bone through your nose.

How trite. Now let’s compare having developed a generic pharmaceutical industry with having put a metal ring through your nose while getting a tatoo. And come to think of it, how significant is it to have spent “several billion dollars of your money to put some clown on the moon”?

#4 Comment By Jones On November 21, 2015 @ 10:46 pm

I don’t know. Maybe being smarter than a black teenager doesn’t make us that cool. Even if she goes to Columbia.

“There seems to be a strong desire among many black college students to segregate themselves: to study black culture and history, to be judged only by other blacks, to associate in a familiar way only with other blacks.”

I don’t know what anyone here will make of it, but it might be worth looking at this photo series on a black student’s path through college.

[9]

#5 Comment By EliteCommInc. On November 22, 2015 @ 12:14 am

” It exists, it is highly anti-intellectual, and it should be a trivial matter to oppose it.”

The assumption that Aristotle and milton represent the only avenues of investigating intellectual critical thought is exactly the problem and the point of the student’s complaint.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Aristotle who may not have been a dead white gyuy as we think of white guys, or Milton, who was definitely a white guy. But the advance suggests that teaching anyone other intellectual thinkers is somehow less intellectual. Or even that not teaching either is somehow less intellectual. The reason that past intellectual thinkers can called obsolete is because education by stripping foundational history of western thought of it relevance in favor of more experiential and personal truth relegates the past truth as unhelpful in comprehending human experience. In many ways it is Aristotle’s intrinsic value in motion. Value determined unto the thing by those who harbor it, desire or practice it in the real — It’s hard to examine a truth’s intrinsic worth in more tangible means than that.

The debate over what constitutes literature of contemporary value is not a matter of emotional senstivity. That is a content discussion worth having. It hits at the very heart of what is meant by diverse thought and to the question of hegemonic influence.

And it may be that the students are not very effectively articulating what it is they think the issues are. So they discuss them in how they feel or their response to it. Which would feed the previous and required classical literature or some of it anywaty that provides some foundational frames by which to express their rejection based on argument, beyond what they feel.

But to suggest that the ony way to get there is by reading Milton and Aristotle would be a bridge the students recognize as false on its face.

#6 Comment By HP On November 22, 2015 @ 6:25 am

Calling Congolese art “primitive” is stupid and should disqualify you from teaching art. But that is about the only thing that makes sense in this girl’s ranting.

[NFR: Why is it stupid? It’s not a slur word, but one that denotes the rawness and lack of complexity in the artworks, as one would expect from a people who do not live in an advanced culture. In fact those works have great power and beauty, which is why primitivism was taken up by some late 19th century and early 20th century Western artists. Art of the Middle Ages is more primitive than what came after it, and it also has a certain power and integrity often not seen in what succeeded it. Byzantine iconography is more primitive than, say, Renaissance portraits of Christ and the saints, but in most cases I find it to be more powerful in its effect. Point is, “primitivism” describes a lack of complexity, and should not be read as a slur word. Of course we judge it relative to our own cultural history — but then, if that bothers you, we should stop calling a certain time period the “Middle Ages,” because that only makes sense relative to the classical period and modernity in the West. — RD]

#7 Comment By David J. White On November 22, 2015 @ 9:04 am

How trite. Now let’s compare having developed a generic pharmaceutical industry with having put a metal ring through your nose while getting a tatoo. And come to think of it, how significant is it to have spent “several billion dollars of your money to put some clown on the moon”?

I have no idea what the first part of this means.

But as for the second part, yes, I recognize the quote from Tom Lehrer. I love Tom Lehrer too, as a comedian and a satirist. That doesn’t mean I take every one of his professed opinions seriously. (Though I think he was onto something when he said that after Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Price, political satire became obsolete.)

Yes, it’s a funny laugh line. Of course it completely overlooks the many scientific and technological benefits that have come from the space program. “Several billion dollars” (to accept Tom Lehrer’s figure) was certainly a lot of money in 1969, but considering what we’ve spent invading other countries for no good reason, the space program has been a great bargain.

#8 Comment By CatherineNY On November 22, 2015 @ 9:39 am

‘Some civilizations have simply been more successful over time. I don’t think it’s going to far to label those civilizations “better.” As William Henry put it in his book In Defense of Elitism, it is not the same thing to have put a man on the moon and to have put a bone through your nose.’ And this takes us back to a frequent debate on this blog, because, as others in these comboxes have pointed out, what allowed our civilization to be the one to reach the moon was modern science, which in turn grew out of nominalism and the Enlightenment and all that bad stuff.

#9 Comment By Michael Guarino On November 22, 2015 @ 9:57 am

Oh yes, a pile of anecdotes and lurid headlines trumps statistic about actual courses and syllabus of actual course content any day, and the equally anecdotal testimony of professors who teach these subjects can be dismissed because, because, because it “is easily contradicted.”

Why is this a response? Statistics about course content is not a poll of student attitudes. And since there has largely been no serious effort to understand student preferences as far as I know, we kind of are stuck with anecdotes. And for what it’s worth, I have plenty of such anecdotes from both my time at university and from professors who have been around for a while.

I suspect it is only common among those who are swept up into the activist left on campus (which is a surprisingly large number), but they have outsized influence as long as administration acts ineffectually. And the content of their beliefs are objectively ridiculous, which is more than enough for me to write a minor blog comment opposing them, even if you want to dismiss the likelihood of them having any influence on the academy.

#10 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On November 22, 2015 @ 2:00 pm

David J. White, you disappoint me. You grasp my afterthought and wax eloquent at some length about the relationship of political satire to analysis, but cannot identify that putting a bone through one’s nose is far from the epitome of even the most primitive culture, just as putting a metal ring through one’s nose (or eyelid, or breast, or whatever) at a modern tanning salon is not in principle much different.

The word “primitive” needs to be understood in relation to the root word “prime.” Primitive came first, it precedes, underlies, and provides the original basis for more complex development later. These raving culture vultures should consider the merits of reclaiming the original meaning of the word, taking it back from the crude political satirists who neglected their own heritage and appropriated the word as a careless epithet.

#11 Comment By EliteCommInc. On November 22, 2015 @ 2:08 pm

““There seems to be a strong desire among many black . . . looking at this photo series on a black student’s path through college. ”
[9]

I found this interesting. I have a couple of responses.

1. Blacks hanging out with blacks is no more or less like whites hanging out with whites. In addition, the country has spent no small amount of energy, resources and policies making sure blacks and whites do not mix. Making an extra effort to ensure blacks stayed in their place. The majority may not like to acknowledge that fact, but that is the reality. To expect some segeregated communities, inner city populations are not going to develp their own was, even to reject that which is common to the majority is a naive. Of course they are going to develop unique languages styles and forms.

2. In the referenced website, it looks as though they plucked out a kid right out of such a segregated society and “poof” placed him in an environment that is completely foreign and foreign in everyway. So the alienation is natural. And should come as know surprise. As someone who struggles with writing, even I am confused about this 4.2 GPA. Because it seems that of you have 4.2 GPA then when confronted with terms you don’t know, you open a dictionary or several. “Big words”, become small very quickly.

3. Here’s where I have to challenge the narrative. In the US the language is english. Whatever unique styles one learns in ones’ neighborhood speaking and writing standard english is the normative expectation for everyone. Hopefully that will not change. My research paper required that I write it in APA format. Te fact, that I was unfamiliar with APA was not the instructor’s fault. Now some expectation that he or she assist me in what that meant in the general seems fair. But I had to get the APA manual and read it and apply it’s guides to my paper. The numerous rewrites would be required until it conformed to the expectations of the instructor. How I may feel about attending to the details is a nonissue. The rules were the rules. My only complaint could have been made had the instructor applied the rules unfairly against me than others. Other than that, the rules are the rules. That is my take on much of this. Black or white, the rules of speaking and writing apply in formal settings.

I am lso aware that a lot of academia has in an attempt to be accommodating have bent and in some cases abandoned the rules, more for foreign students than native american blacks. My housemate recently came home and informed that that collegiate speech association for speech and debate decided to add an ESL format to comppetitive speech — this is bizarre to me. It defaets the purose of ESL and decimates the means of judging competitions.

I can be moderately empathetic to the struggle in this regard. But I am totally unsympathetic to the demand to change it. No greater misuse of the entertainment advance to the mechanics of US society than it’s dismissal of the the rules of speaking english. Maddening to hear the english language so mangled in ennunciation, pronunciation — outside of noting a particular cultural shifts or nuance, the portaryal of teachers, doctors, lawyers, etc. speaking forms of english as opposed to english is irritating.

I guess the integrity push in tis issue is whether academia has unfairly used what is otherwise a learning modality or expectation to bias providing black students a fair space to succeed or learn. Is what is generally expected leveraged aginst them because they are black and the instructor’s or the institutional biases adopted as part of the discriminatory practices in US academic environemnts. If so, I would still oppose that the answer is merely to drop the standard to compensate.

But the failure here is largely one of our elementary and HS institutions, in my view. I generally reject the typical blaming students because teachers have a hard time teaching certain students. Teaching is hard work, sadly liberals have removed ettitquitte from elementary schools. And if one is honest, that removal began among whites whose moms and dads got lawyers to challenge teachers who hurt the feelings of the white students. A process that began in ernest in the 1980’s in my view.

#12 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On November 22, 2015 @ 4:31 pm

it is not the same thing to have put a man on the moon and to have put a bone through your nose

You just made M_Young’s day when you said that.

#13 Comment By David J. White On November 22, 2015 @ 10:14 pm

Siarlys,

David J. White, you disappoint me. You grasp my afterthought and wax eloquent at some length about the relationship of political satire to analysis, but cannot identify that putting a bone through one’s nose is far from the epitome of even the most primitive culture, just as putting a metal ring through one’s nose (or eyelid, or breast, or whatever) at a modern tanning salon is not in principle much different.

I’m sorry, I thought you were referring to some specific incident or person you expected me recognize — some specific individual or company who saw the infections resulting from tattooing and piercing and used this as an opportunity to develop pharmaceuticals in response, and I didn’t recognize the person or company I thought you expected me to. Evidently though you were just speaking hypothetically.

As for “primitive,” I don’t believe I ever used the word “primitive” in my posts on this topic.

(But, to lay my cards on the table, I have always regarded the modern fad for tattooing and piercing to be very declasse, if not something of a small regression to barbarism. I realize that this is probably mainly a generational attitude. But when I was growing up, it seemed like the only men who had tattoos were ex-sailors or members of motorcycle gangs, and the only women who had tattoos were either biker chicks or strippers. Now, I realize intellectually that that isn’t true, and that tattooing has become much more socially acceptable, but that’s still the emotional reaction I have to them. If, heaven forbid, something happened to my wife and I were looking to get married again, I think my two non-negotiables would be a) must be Catholic and b) no tattooes or weird piercings. Again, I realize that this is probably a function of generation, as well as, perhaps, class.)

#14 Comment By Michael Guarino On November 23, 2015 @ 1:02 am

But to suggest that the ony way to get there is by reading Milton and Aristotle would be a bridge the students recognize as false on its face.

Just to clarify, I don’t think that both of Milton and Aristotle are necessary components of a liberal arts education. Aristotle is necessary for knowledge of the history of ideas, and Milton for knowledge of English epic poetry, but whether those subjects must be taught is actually a tricky question. I would say yes to history of ideas, but that might be personal bias.

The crucial point is that invoking the presence of dead white men is a remarkably lazy way to argue for the deprioritization of a work. It is worth mentioning because it happens surprisingly often, with very little effective counterargument.

#15 Comment By grumpy realist On November 23, 2015 @ 8:52 am

I always thought that “primitive” in regard to art meant the art fell in one of three categories:

1) image doesn’t follow the rules of perspective
2) image doesn’t have provenance.
3) image doesn’t follow the rules of whatever school the critic feels is high-class/learned/appropriate.

Another thought: can anyone go back and find out what Western critics originally thought of Japanese pottery/painting when they first encountered it? Japan has a completely different system of aesthetics (the wabi-sabi axis, etc.) and am quite sure there were similarly disapproving comments about their art. The reason Congolese art still gets called “primitive” is because they haven’t been able to push back yet with their own definitions as to how to value artistic level.

#16 Comment By David J. White On November 23, 2015 @ 4:16 pm

Another thought: can anyone go back and find out what Western critics originally thought of Japanese pottery/painting when they first encountered it? Japan has a completely different system of aesthetics (the wabi-sabi axis, etc.) and am quite sure there were similarly disapproving comments about their art. The reason Congolese art still gets called “primitive” is because they haven’t been able to push back yet with their own definitions as to how to value artistic level.

It’s not just Western critics trying to evaluate non-Western art; it’s also post-Renaissance Western critics trying to evaluate Western Medieval art, which often looks the way it does not because of a lack of skill on the part of the artists (an argument I’ve actually seen) but because their artistic standards and goals were often different (e.g, the sizes of the people depicted often indicate their relative status).