Sunday, May 11, 2008

Conversation Recap for May 11, 2008

We began with the check-in, and we are all in.

No story today, and we discussed the format. Stories are ten minutes in length, and the limit allows more questions and discussion We passed around a list to schedule story tellers.

This past week the Washington Coalition for Homelessness met in Yakima. See them at One speaker at the meeting was Liz Murray, whose story was depicted in the movie, From Homeless to Harvard. Here is a description at IMDB:

We continued with our discussion of the book, A Hope in the Unseen, by Ron Suskind. We started talking for a bit about Suskind’s style. Among the observations: in his story, it is Ivy League that counts as real education, and the others don’t matter much (so the top student at Cedric’s high school, and his friend LaTisha, are lost in the story).

Take a look at p. 103, the story about Cedric and James, and their choices. “He and Cedric understand each other’s choices.” (middle of the page) It is another example of Suskind’s style, of having one central character that we care about, the others fall out—in this case, the story of what all is going on with James.

One member added this to Suskind, showing what an exceptional teacher or two at a school can do to the overall teacher experience. This has been the theme of movies like Stand and Deliver and The Principal.

The distinctions implied about quality among colleges leaves out of the story the places where just about all students are educated.

One interpretation of Cedric’s focus on MIT and the Ivies is also a sign of depending on external sources for measures of self-worth. He could perhaps get a lot out of other schools. But place it in a context of a couple of conversations in the book, in this case the appearance of Clarence Thomas. It opens a window on a tension faced by black people—Thomas tells a story of facing doubts and opportunities for failure, and the way to handle one’s self is always in a tension between taking opportunities and avoiding judgment and failure. As another participant mentioned, there are a lot of colleges around that top students look for, who understand that the grad

The Ivy campuses, and many others, are much more diverse than they used to be, observed one participant. And yet the very wealthy universities are picking the best test takers, and have the money to offer cheap or free rides to the students they want.

One member was recently able to see Thurgood, now playing in New York. And reading the Clarence Thomas episode in the book, what a comparison, that Clarence Thomas was the judge who replaced Thurgood Marshall. For Thurgood, get tickets at

We discussed the question of how Cedric got to Brown. SAT 960, and yet a top student. Brown has affirmative action admission policies for some seats, but as noted on p. 191 it does not do much to support such students once they get to campus. Suskind’s own explanation is on p. 197, and in the author’s afterword he says the Brown people did not know Cedric was the kid depicted in the earlier Wall Street Journal article.

Suskind’s explanation focuses on the things that helped Cedric navigate all the things that could have derailed him, or killed him. Mom and Church figure very large in this. But also, perhaps told in events but not explicitly noted by Suskind on p. 197, was the way he handled anger, the way he wanted himself to be on top (recall his experience on the church choir), and this too was part of the navigation tools he used to get through those dangers.

One participant reminded us of the laws passed in the last decade that outlaw affirmative action. The effects on who gets in to places like Berkeley was almost instant. (About the only place where state schools are still allowed to practice even minimal affirmative action is in professional graduate schools, such as the University of Michigan—which lost its court defense of undergraduate affirmative action, but won its defense of it in its law school.) This means it is places like the private schools, such as the Ivies, that can still practice undergraduate AA. Cedric got in just about the time those laws were passing.

We were asked to consider Cedric’s choices for ‘solid’ subjects, like math. They are tough classes. Suskind does not apparently get to the connection between the difficulties with historical references, such as not knowing about Winston Churchill. So maybe Cedric the solid subject student was neglecting social studies and history. But what Suskind really neglects, in that passage on 197 and generally, is an understanding of the cultural knowledge he does have, and that he did pick up in that place he was. True, Cedric has difficulty leveraging that at Brown. We see it crop up in some episodes in the book, such as when the Dorm students see him as cool, as the authority on some topics, and mark him off as the cool person to befriend. The story of how Cedric makes some of these choices, and how he emerges from it, can be much better told. The picture we get is that his background, his neighborhood, his entire social background, is all negative. In addition to 197, see p. 158.

Suskind presents us with a depiction of right and wrong that we might not to accept. A popular American value, its exceptionalism, is about how the country is right, and righteous in its rightness. Does Suskind buy into this, with his emphasis on the value of the Ivies, on the wrongness of all that is Cedric’s background? Hmmm, this might be insidiously joining the observations of the pathologies of black people and how an individual like Cedric can be helped so much by contact with whiteness. We don’t get much about the community strengths—the self-help mechanisms are probably there, but what do we read? Recall the scene where Barbara is getting put out, p. 346. Throughout the book where Cedric’s home and neighborhood are described, where are the helpful folks, the people who are good to each other?

How about we spend as much effort studying the pathologies of rich neighborhoods, of associating mostly with one’s class? One interesting idea—how a deep and rich education can lead to a “trained incapacity,” an inability to see important features of the world.

We can perhaps do some of this by looking at the limitations of the Ivies through the depictions of Cedric’s peers.

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