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Monday, December 16, 2013


Now we come to what I find especially interesting in all of this.  The South African educational system, even after Liberation, offers nothing remotely resembling the structure of "second chances" that are provided to Americans by Community Colleges, Extension Programs, and other ways of accumulating tertiary education credits that can be applied toward a tertiary degree.  In America, a young man or woman who does poorly in high school and has made little or no effort to continue on to college can take college level courses at a local Community College.  If he or she does well, those credits can then be transferred to a nearby campus of the State College system, and those credits in turn can be carried over to a branch of the State university.  All of this is out of the question in South Africa.

But South Africa is full of able, intelligent Black men and women who have learned a great deal of real value on the job or in life, as we like to say.  Let me give just one example.  The largest of the Townships contain hundreds of thousands of residents -- Wikipedia gives the population  of Soweto as more than 850,000.  Under the apartheid regime, the national government did very little in the way of internal management of these huge urban populations, and informal, unacknowledged, unofficial governments sprang up that provided internal policing and other city functions.  The Black men and women who performed these functions did not have university degrees in Political Science, but they knew how to run a big city.  So those engaged in educating and training township residents or union members, like Enver, seized on the existing educational theories of alternative education and formal credentialing of practical knowledge, arguing that so long as the society demanded educational credentials for the best jobs, the non-white men and women who had over many years acquired demonstrable skills should receive credentialed recognition of that fact.

At the same time, Enver and others began to elaborate on the old argument about the destructive consequences of the separation of "head work" from "hand work."  We are all familiar with that distinction.  In the United States, it is sometimes described as the distinction between White Collar jobs and Blue Collar jobs, or between "suits" and "shirts," or between working class and middle class.  There is a long tradition in European and American radical educational circles of challenging the legitimacy of that distinction as not intellectually or educationally grounded, and as serving primarily to enforce and rigidify social and economic class divisions.

When I first arrived in South Africa in 1986, before Liberation, I was enchanted to discover that in that politically enslaved country these ideas were alive and well, while in supposedly liberated America, they were all but dead.  This was one of the reasons that I fell in love with South Africa and committed my time and energy to the struggle for liberation both there and here in America.  This is a long and very sad story, but the short of it is that after Liberation, few if any significant changes were made in the South African tertiary educational sector.  There was a years-long hullaballoo about "transformation," but aside from some mergers and reshufflings at the administrative level, the hide-bound old-fashioned rigid educational system continued.  The only difference was in the shades of color of the faces of the students.

My experiences in South Africa forced me to reexamine my assumptions about American higher education.  As my one book length discussion of the subject [The Ideal of the University, 1969] makes clear, the early part of my long career was spent in the elite, privileged private sector of American higher education.  I taught at Harvard, at Chicago, at Columbia.  When I moved to the University of Massachusetts in 1971, I thought of myself as going into the belly of the beast, but of course UMass is itself part of the elite sector of higher ed.  Wikipedia says that there are 2774 four year degree granting educational institutions in America.  UMass is surely among the top three or four hundred, and perhaps among the top two hundred.  So in leaving Columbia for UMass, I was, so to speak, going from a gated community to an upper-middle class suburb.

But that of course does not begin to capture the reality of American society.  Only slightly more than thirty percent of Americans over the age of 25 have earned the B.A. or its equivalent.  It is important to pause for a moment to reflect on the significance of that statistic.  Seventy per cent of the adults in this country are simply ineligible for almost every decent job because they lack the appropriate educational credentials.

To be sure, you need a college degree to be a professor, a doctor, or a lawyer.  Indeed, you need several.  But you also need a college degree to be a high school teacher, to be an elementary school teacher, to get into a corporate management training program, to work for a business consulting firm, to be an architect, a Registered Nurse, an FBI agent, to have any hope of working for a non-profit.  If the Walmart website is to be believed, your chances of becoming a Walmart store manager without a college degree are minimal.  So seventy percent of Americans can kiss all of those jobs goodbye.   

Since virtually everyone who talks or writes about education and the American economy is in that thirty percent -- and most are in the very much tinier segment of graduates of top colleges and universities [counting UMass and its equivalents as part of the "top"], the talk is all about how hard it is to get into the elite handful of Ivy League schools and their equivalents, as though that were the only question worth discussing.  Save when the conversation turns to African-Americans and Latinos, no one really acknowledges that most Americans do not have college degrees.  Now, to be sure, a larger share of each age cohort gets some post-secondary education.  After all, those 2774 four-year schools manage, on average, to graduate within six years only about 55% of the students who enroll.  But the fact remains that even now, not having a college degree is the norm.  By the way, when I was an undergraduate, only about six or seven percent of Americans had a college degree!

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