Bill Maxwell's Series: My Take
Over the past couple of weeks, at least six people have asked me what I think of columnist Bill Maxwell's three-part series on his experiences leaving the Times to spend two years teaching at the historically black Stillman College.
Often, these questions have come from folks who, knowing my past work, expect me to have some problems with his amazingly written, but highly critical narrative. And I do. But my position sometimes doesn't seem to matter much; what they really want is an excuse to vent their own passionate disagreements with much of what Bill has written.
After a few of these encounters, I decided to wait until the series was fully published and then weigh in myself, here.
As usual, I am impressed with the depth of Bill's writing and his ability to cut to the heart of the matter. I doubt there are many other writers who could tackle such a sprawling story over so many weeks and leave pieces so compelling I had to read every word.
He raises some troubling questions as well. How can college students care so little for their campus that they set parts of it on fire? Or refuse to buy textbooks? How can a college which charges more than $11,000 annually in tuition tolerate clerks so rude that even professors at the school would rather email documents than deal with them personally?
BUT -- and you knew there was one coming -- I found the biggest weakness of this project was its tone. This series felt like three weeks of generational warfare playing out in the pages of the St. Petersburg Times -- with Bill serving as the hectoring elder facing down the moral bankruptcy of his former students.
I wish these stories had more voices in them, particularly of Stillman kids. I kept wondering, as I read these barbed accounts of lazy students who wouldn't attend free outings or congregated on the steps of school buildings, what explanations the pupils would offer for their actions. I wanted to know how some of the school officials felt about the criticisms of their institution. I knew there were other sides to these stories, and the tale felt incomplete without them.
The numbers also spoke volumes. According to the statistics presented with the stories, Stillman had the smallest student body with the highest percentage of kids receiving federal Pell Grants of any historically black college listed -- these mostly were kids who wouldn't be going to college if facilities like Stillman weren't around, accepting most every student with the financial aid to pay tuition.
Did he really think these kids would be at the same scholastic level as an average college student of any race?
Mostly, I think Bill's series is a reflection of where we are with diversity initiatives and education. Efforts to make college more accessible for students of color have always been blunt instruments, most effective at helping minority students who already are poised for success, particularly among the middle class.
But what do we do with the underclass? As I have said many times before, it seems too easy to condemn people for their self-destructive choices, their in-your-face music, their defiantly anti-intellectual attitudes. Condemning people doesn't really help them, though it can make others feel good about their own choices.
Bill's not alone. Oprah Winfrey, Bill Cosby and NPR correspondent Juan Williams are just a few high profile black people who have grown impatient with the black underclass. Most, if not all of them overcame tough, deprived childhoods to make something special of themselves and expect the same from others.
And because these folks are black, they have license to make the kind of pointed, generalized comments which would cost a white commentator his or her job. For some white people, this feels like the revelation of a truth long hidden -- accountability finally demanded from black people by a black person. To some black folks, it feels like an attack -- a way to earn plaudits and prestige by echoing the kind of unfair generalizations white people can't get away with in polite company anymore.
Of course, neither extreme is right, especially in the case of Bill, who I've always known as an earnest truth-seeker who could give a crap what others think of him. And I certainly wouldn't have the guts to cut my income in half to spend two years teaching kids who mostly couldn't care less who I was or what I was telling them.
Funny this is, i've never been a strong advocate for historically black colleges. I've often felt that, to succeed in a white-dominated society, black folks must learn how to live and work with white people as soon as possible. I remember how hard it was me to learn how to negotiate white culture and I've attended white-dominated schools since the 5th grade. I worry that historically black colleges allow some folks to delay the culture shock of being surrounded by while culture until they start their careers -- when problems adjusting can hurt you most.
I have a desperate feeling about these issues which hit me hardest reading Bill's stories. I feel we're talking past each other -- confusing race problems with class problems and generational problems with motivational problems. As I told Juan Williams during a radio debate, I don't think many kids in the underclass think they have a realistic chance of being a rap or basketball star -- the problem is, they see their chances of getting a job which earns a middle class wage as remote as getting a job playing point guard for the Knicks.
And how you change that awful reality, I'm not sure.