During a brief conversation with the candidate for the Mexican presidency Manuel Andrés López Obrador, the topic came up as to why so much of the Mexican leadership was getting degrees from American universities particularly Harvard University. He expressed a preference that Mexican politicians and leaders attend Mexican universities because an alienation occurs when a student is removed from his community.
It hit a chord — I am also ambivalent about the mainstreaming Mexican American and Latino students. Education does not bond us to our communities; it gives us the tools to individually succeed. But ultimately universities are creatures of the state that socialize us and equip us to socially engineer others.
Schooling stratifies society, tracks students into groups with the nerds occupying the highest rung. Students learn their place and teachers pine for top groups. High school teachers’ prize their AP (Advanced Placement) classes deluding themselves that this is real teaching.
Alienation takes place with students knowing who is special. Teachers treat these “good” students like peers — preferring the geeks to the freaks. Yet, both groups occupy the same space and are part of the same community. Off campus they live in areas with similar institutions and cultural symbols. Parental attitudes and food reinforce an intangible bonding.
Leaders such as AMLO are aware of the fact that Mexican barrio boys or girls do not attend Harvard. Few poor kids get the opportunity to travel abroad, and most don’t even know that Harvard exists. The ones that do attend are Americanized.
Where students go to school is not as important today as where they grow up. In my day there was clear distinction existed between public and parochial schools. Today the latter are too expensive and havens for students fleeing the public schools. A growing percentage of my Latino students come from magnet schools and less from parochial.
Traditionally, civil rights organizations have followed the rule that it is necessary to produce educated elite. The great African American leader W. E. B. Du Bois insisted that this talented tenth would bring about civil rights reform and political representation. Du Bois greatly influenced later generations of Black and minority leadership.
While I would not take the position that education is bad, going to Harvard or an Ivy League university does not necessarily mean that a person is more educated, smarter or entitled. In my opinion, there are many ways to produce a vanguard.
American foundations have pursued this hierarchical strategy. The Ford Foundation, for example, supported ethnic studies programs at more prestigious institutions believing that the institutions would legitimatize ethnic studies by making them academically competitive and earning them the respect of mainstream disciplines. Ford Foundation socially engineered black studies, women studies and to lesser degree Chicana/o studies.
F. Champion Ward, a Ford vice-president and former dean of graduate studies at the University of Chicago said, “we believe that Afro-American studies should not be fenced off. We do not believe that only white Americans can understand Carl Sandburg or only blacks can understand Leopold Senghor…We are persuaded that these subjects will not achieve the place in the college curriculum that they deserve unless they are designed and taught with regular standards of learning and scholarship. To accomplish this, trained faculty and new course materials must be developed vigorously in the years ahead.” According to Ward, separatism was not the way; however, Ford never dealt with the question of power.
In a 1973 report Ford stated “Possession of the Ph.D. is not essential to begin college teaching, but it is important in being hired by stronger colleges and universities, in promotion, and in obtaining tenure.” The report further stated fewer than 3,000 Blacks and probably no more than 200 Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, and Native had doctorates.
A Ford program officer paid me a visit in the early 70s and asked me about Ford’s PhD initiative. He was visibly annoyed when I replied that I did not like it. The Mexican American and Mexican population was exploding because the median age of Mexican American women was ten years lower than white women while the white and black American population was in decline.
Probably no more than two hundred Chicana/o and Puerto Rican scholars had doctorates in the early 1970s. The Mexican American PhD pool was about one hundred, and doubling or even tripling that number would have little impact on the Chicana/o community.
The black situation differed. They had about three thousand PhDs and would benefit from doubling or tripling that number. Just as important was that African Americans lived in communities near Ivy League schools. Sending Chicanas/os to Ivy League Schools would be good for individuals but hardly transformative for the Chicana/o community.
I proposed that Ford focus on community colleges where Master of Arts not PhD degrees is required. Sending doctoral students away from home would alienate them; if they wanted to implement the fellows program, Ford should require fellows to work summers as interns in labor unions, community organizations, prisons and Equal Opportunity Programs.
How many Chicana/o scholars were produced? An Advanced Study Fellows Award, 1967-1973 Fact Sheet listed the number of awards: 691 Black candidates, eighty-five Chicanos, sixty-two Puerto Ricans, and thirty-seven Native Americans.
While it is not an either or proposition, what would the community have benefited most from?
Today more Latino students are enrolling in California in higher education than white students. However, two-thirds of them go to community colleges. According to a recent University of Southern California study: “Among graduates of public high schools that ranked in the top 10 percent statewide, 46 percent of Latinos enrolled at a community college, as compared to 27 percent of whites, 23 percent of African-Americans, and 19 percent of Asians.” In California, Latino students have become a separate and unequal majority in higher education.
Research on Latino community college is limited. Current diversity data is almost impossible to obtain. Luis Ponjuan (2012), however, underscores the value of faculty diversity. He and others have found that a “critical mass” of Latino faculty increases Latino student retention. Despite this the raw number of Latino faculty members is difficult to come by. More Latinos tend to be sequestered in the ranks of part time and temporary faculty.
It is not too much of a stretch to suggest that few community college professors attended Ivy League universities. This does not suggest that acquiring or not acquiring a doctorate makes you a better fit. The point I am trying to make is that going to Harvard is not based on your intelligence but on luck and circumstances. I have met my share of idiots with Ivy League degrees at California State University at Northridge. I know Latino and Latina Ivy League professors who could not organize a tea party let alone an ethnic studies program. Some cannot communicate with students of their own kind.
In the case of Mexicans and Mexican Americans who go to universities away from their home environment they must keep in mind a danger of alienation. When I returned from the army, it took me time to reorient myself. The problem is that many do not realize that going to college does not make one smart.
Rodolfo Acuña, Ph.D., is an historian, professor emeritus, and one of various scholars of Chicano studies, which he teaches at California State University, Northridge. He is the author of Occupied America: A History of Chicanos. Dr. Acuña writes various opinions and essays on his Facebook page and allows sites to share his thoughts.