I interviewed at a graduate program for urban education this past week. The program is housed in an elite private university, which I was encouraged to apply to because of its international reputation. I did not know before arriving that the school is built in one of the most historic Black neighborhoods in the United States, and one of the poorest, most crime ridden hoods today. The campus stands as a monastic island of academic study in the midst of a profoundly under-served and economically-starved section of the city. The majority of the other Black people I encountered while visiting were security guards, stationed on almost every corner where the university bleeds out into the streets of the surrounding community. This off-balance dynamic was particularly unsettling as the program for which I was interviewing took such pride in its race and class-based approach to “educating a diverse urban student body.”
As an undergraduate, I had a changing conversation with a good friend of mine during her last semester at our university. She was approaching burnout as she attempted to squeeze in extra classes, visit every seminar and lecture she could, and still make time to hang out with friends before they all went their separate ways. She knew internally, she articulated during our conversation, that the tools available to her at our school would be scarce once she was no longer a student there. Our institution hoarded resources, to the degree that those who could access them were often overwhelmed by the amount of information and opportunity at their fingertips. As a soon-to-be-graduate, my friend sensed this imbalance, and knew she only had a limited amount of time before she was again locked out of the university’s collected resources, returned to the larger, barred population. The stress she was feeling was the stress of a competitive and inequitable system of learning, one which over-privileged a few with the rights to knowledge, while denying the majority of people in its vicinity those same rights.
There are countless and complex reasons why so many elite private schools rise up in the midst of poor, brown neighborhoods: Many of these schools have existed for well over a century, and have drawn to themselves the populations they require to perform the cooking, cleaning, grounds and service jobs which keep their institutions humming; Every year private schools oversee incomprehensible sums of money from tuition, grants, investments and donations, and generate revenues which are never seen by the local communities which house them; Being adjacent to easily-displaced populations is convenient when the time comes to expand the business of higher learning (How many homes of poor people have been destroyed to make room for new facilities and dorms?); And if the surrounding neighborhoods become too unsavory, there is always an ample workforce available to take on low-paying security positions, protecting the school from the very communities from which it hires. The university I visited this past week is even known for “stabilizing” its location in the city–contracting businesses and companies to open branches in the blocks closest to the campus, which can provide recreation for students, and discourage less desirable populations from hanging around. All these tactics should tell us one thing: It is the business of elitist education to make resources plentiful for those to whom it grants entrance, and scarce for those who can’t make the cut. It derives its power from imbalance, in precise imitation of the economic orders it supports, and therefore makes perfect sense that it should thrive when the communities in proximity, those whose livelihoods are most closely linked to its own, are struggling.
None of these are new observations, but I think they raise important questions for historically oppressed and politically radical people. During my visit this past week I found myself asking, regardless of what I am being told or shown by administrators and professors, can I expect to engage in the kind of political thought and action I care most about within an institution like this one? Do I expect to learn justice and empowerment within a space which actively disadvantages and mistreats my own people? These kinds of questions I believe are pertinent, not just for future educators, but for all oppressed people considering any kind of relationship with the academy. Acknowledging the wise and dedicated faculty that do sometimes work with these schools, why do we look to elite private institutions to provide us the training and knowledge we need to be effective advocates for radical change? Might it be our own communities, the ones both dependent on and targeted by these elitist institutions, which can teach us the most about the role of imbalance and injustice in our current order, and where struggles to combat them might begin in earnest?