“The Danger of a Single Story”

Dr. Cottom makes a crucial point about people viewing education as inherently and exceptionally good, even when the education system has consistently failed them at every turn. I see this as being detrimental for two reasons. The first reason is that it renders the harms caused by education invisible, for example it can make it difficult to see CUNY (and “the university”—a term I hope we will grapple with this semester) as a Carceral space not an exceptional site located outside of antiblack policing. The second reason is that it makes education into a panacea which it is not—education should exist alongside housing, public health, the arts, etc. I worry that some of the positive framing of CUNY in relation to COVID, for example the superherofication of the frontline worker / CUNY student, or the longer standing focus on CUNY as an engine of social mobility hold the university to impossibly high (and perhaps not optimal) standards that can have adverse ramifications. Do CUNY students working in healthcare and food service need to die en masse so that the city’s wealthy residents can survive COVID in relative comfort for the university to warrant funding? Does CUNY need to be the horario Alger industrial complex to earn its keep in Albany? 

In her talk at the Graduate Center a couple months back, Dr. Cottom expressed frustration with a common misreading of her book that saw it as solely focused on for-profit universities as unique spaces within higher ed, missing the larger claim she is making about the pervasiveness of lower ed across the higher education sector. I see this as connected to a larger critique of the classification systems of colleges and universities that often obscure significant differences, even when they are attempting to reveal differences themselves. For example, in response to an overwhelming focus on private institutions in the media (the NYT seems to think Harvard is the only university in the world) much of the CUNY narrative demands greater attention be paid to public universities. But there is enormous variance within public higher education, with Berkeley certainly failing to speak adequately to the realities of Grambling State. Community colleges, which educate around half of the nation’s students, are given little attention in the media and even less that takes into account difference within this enormous sector. CUNY, the largest urban public university in the nation with hundreds of thousands of students and dozens of colleges and schools, is similarly depicted as a monolith, even in the op-eds written by those affiliated with CUNY. This can make it difficult to see that while we certainly experience austerity at the Grad Center (as the recent cuts to graduate students funding make clear), it is not to the same degree as the organized abandonment of a college like Medgar Evers where students attend overenrolled courses in temporary trailers that have seemingly become permanent.