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Street Knowledge Vs. College?

“F**k College; I’m about street knowledge,” a friend once said to me. I smiled, nodding approvingly, before adding: “I feel you, man..” We exchanged daps, unifying our indifference to higher education.. Soon after, the conversation dissolved into something less meaningful.

That was two years ago, at a lunch table. Today, things have considerably changed. While I still hold certain conspiratorial views concerning the influx of big businesses into the College field, I hesitate to discard the progressive possibilities of a College education.

For instance, conspiratorially speaking, I find it interesting that the Pell Grant, which many students believe to be government subsidies, are really financed by the high interest made from the same student loans they are being taxed at draconian rates—talk to me Sallie Mae!—for. 

I might also have a problem with the increasing levels of racial segregation and class exclusion used to determine student enrollment; but I’m not yet resolved to bashing everything College-related.   

In spite of my mild change of heart, reconciling the promises with the realities of College is a task I find daunting. We often hear of the goodness of a College education—“it will set you on the path to achieving your dreams”—but anyone aware of the great costs most Universities demand, and the lackluster values they promote, should understand why many Black and Brown students might share similar viewpoints.    

Renowned educators Henry Giroux and Susan Giroux tackled, with great success, this contention in their seminal text, “Take Back Higher Education.”

“Since their appearance in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, American colleges followed the traditions established by Oxford, Cambridge, and the continental universities in the preparation of their overwhelmingly white male student body for law, ministry, medicine, and politics.” [Giroux, Henry; Giroux, Susan. Take Back Higher Education: Race, Youth, and the Crisis of Democracy in the Post-Civil Rights Era. New York: Palgrave

Macmillan, 2004 (1st ed.), p. 144.]

In “A Crisis of Affordability: How Our Public Colleges Are Turning into Gated Communities for the Wealthy” (Alternet, April 2009), Investigative Reporter, Andy Kroll, writes about the growing disparities in College affordability for Black and Brown students. He speaks of the drastic increase in tuition, nationally, as intentional. Big businesses, Andy argues, have no problem aiding and abetting the rich in reaching their goals of transforming Colleges into educational “gated communities”—reserved only for the privileged, elite, and powerful.    

A great question was once asked: If there’s such a thing as “under-privileged,” why not, in like manner, “over-privileged?” The answer: Because those within the culture of power can’t afford the risk of being branded greedy—even though that’s essentially what they are.

Kroll justifies his contention with some grim statistics. Utilizing data issued by The Education Trust, he writes:

[S]tate flagship universities and a group of other major research universities spent $257 million in 2003 on financial aid for students from families earning more than $100,000 a year. Those same universities spent only $171 million on aid to students from families who made less than $20,000 a year. Similarly, between 1995 and 2003, according to the report, grant aid from the same public universities to students from families making $80,000 or more increased 533%, while grant aid to families making less than $40,000 increased only 120%.

At this, only a fool, or a greedy capitalist, would fail to connect the dots: There is an ongoing drive to strip low-income families, disproportionately Black and Brown, of the privileges a College education provides. These students are asked to rely on street knowledge, told to depend on the underground economy of drug paraphernalia, and expected to end up serving life sentences in the lower bunk of a prison cell. That’s the live designed, and set up, for them. And still, we—society—see no wrong in blaming them for falling into traps created before they could recite correctly the alphabets.    

Anyone familiar with the prison system can attest that in no other places are there more geniuses, scholars, and orators than the penitentiaries. Many of them, lacking a High school diploma, go on to earn College credits while incarcerated—a testament to their intellectual discipline. They are the victims of capitalism let loose, run amok, and operated unchecked.  

Of course, in any dialogue concerning the merits and benefits of a College degree, the impact of the current economic crisis must be addressed. With unemployment skyrocketing in communities of color, students with Bachelor’s can often be found working shifts at Burger King, with those earning their Master’s managing at McDonald’s, and even Ph.D.s confirming your Papa John’s Pineapple Pizza order.

This analysis isn’t meant to disparage the good that some Colleges do; rather, it is constructed to surrender a wake-up call to those whose hopes and dreams are forever invested in the piece of paper received after years of endless study in University libraries—an exercise only yielding disappointment in the long-run.    

Depending on academic certification over intellectual exploration is a recipe for failure. There are no other ways to put it. The gifts of intellectual curiosity, critical reflection, self examination (introspection), and independent reasoning that start at the moment of conception (some medical scientists believe it comes long before that—when a fetus first hears the heartbeat of the mother), can provide far better guidance than a school curriculum, no matter how progressive, is able to.     

The high costs of higher education nowadays should irrefutably validate this assertion. Colleges now charge students for just about anything—printing papers used for assignments given by Professors (employees of the school!)—without any moral justification. 

The great 19th century scholar Henry David Thoreau addressed this crisis in more provoking terms:

I cannot but think that if only we had more true wisdom in these respects, not only less education would be needed, because, forsooth, more would already have been acquired, but the pecuniary expense of getting education would in a great measure vanish. … Those things for which the most money is demanded are never the things which the student most wants. [Thoreau, Henry David. Uncommon Learning: Thoreau on Education. New York: Mariner Books, 1999, p. 7-8.]

It’s unreasonable to believe that most students want the illusion of education without actually getting it, or that they prefer incredulous tuition costs over budgeted amounts, or that they are more comfortable being instructed by academics who share no connection to the backgrounds they come from. It’s unreasonable.  

But tell that to the policy makers and shot callers; the folks at the helm of the education system. Tell that to the deans and chairs. Tell that to the chancellors and presidents. Those to whom the most power is given are those who, we’ve found that, abuse it egregiously. They are the ones who are in such a rush to cut funding for Black Studies, Native American Studies, Latin Studies, Asian Studies. They are the ones less concerned about the toll taken when Women’s Studies is axed, as being witnessed nationwide, in a push to preserve academic purity.

As long as students are disconnected from the decision-making process of school policies, student governments and other such structures would continually be exposed for the farces and props they are.   

What College students, parents, progressive educators, Hip-Hop artists, and concerned parties must understand, is that the struggle to “take back,” as the Girouxs wrote, all pedagogical institutions isn’t limited to Colleges alone. The fight must expand to all layers of social engagement, and run through the conduits that connect and bind our world together. Acquiescence isn’t an option at this point. The future of the next generation depends, in great proportions, on the capacity of our actions. And, in truth, it’s the least they can ask for.

We must also come to understand that a quality College education is good, but awareness of the world in which one lives isn’t, and has never been, restricted to the walls of academia.

Disclaimer: This commentary was written by a non-College student and/or graduate. 

Tolu Olorunda is a cultural critic and a Columnist for BlackCommentator.com. He can be reached at Tolu.Olorunda@gmail.com.

The views expressed inside this editorial aren’t necessarily the views of AllHipHop.com or its employees.

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