Sunday, June 26, 2011

Is College for Everyone? A Very Old Story

From the current debate over whether a college education is worth the price in money and time for every American child, a memory seven decades old arises as testimony to the life-changing difference those four years used to make for generations born to immigrant parents.

The teacher's name, improbably, was Mr. Crabb. His grim face rose from a stiff rounded collar anchored by a pinched tie. His suits, buttoned over a body of stone, were always black.

He had been teaching math at Junior High School 44 since before any of us were born--a ramrod of a man displaced from some heartland town and set down among the striving little savages of the Bronx. He held us at cufflinked arm's length with disapproving eyes.

Over the years he had planted himself in the doorway to a free college education, and he was an austere gatekeeper, Godlike, judging our fitness to escape a future life of sweat in shops and factories, much as the civil servants on Ellis Island had earlier eyed our parents to decide whether they were worthy of passing from steerage into the Promised Land.

Since none of our families had money for tuition, our only hope was City College, and the only sure way of getting in was through Townsend Harris High School. The competition for places there was so fierce that admission was determined by competitive examinations. Somehow, no one remembered exactly how, Mr. Crabb had taken charge of preparing candidates from JHS 44 for those tests.

Every morning before eight, our small huddled mass waited for him on the cold stone steps of the school (no one who was late would be let in). On the dot of the hour, he marched up to unlock the front door. Once inside, he handed his bowler hat to one of us, briefcase to another, umbrella to a third, and we followed him down the hall for an hour of drill.

After a few weeks it became clear in my 13-year-old mind that those mornings of mental drudgery, boring and repetitive, had a different, darker purpose than preparing us for testing: the sheer assertion of power by a bitter old man over children he detested, exacting humiliation as the price for a chance at a better life than he thought we deserved.

After one brutal session of rote, laced with sarcasm, I went up to his desk and said, "I'm not coming any more."

"Then you won't be taking the tests," he answered without looking up.

I didn’t take the tests but somehow managed to keep my high-school grades just high enough to scrape through and get the college education that would lead to the life described in the biography on this page.

Now, David Leonhardt writes in the New York Times that the argument against college for all “encourages children, parents and schools to aim low. For those families on the fence--often deciding whether a student will be the first to attend--the skepticism becomes one more reason to stop at high school. Only about 33 percent of young adults get a four-year degree today, while another 10 percent receive a two-year degree.”

Here is one emphatic vote the other way, and damn the Mr. Crabbs of the world!

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