That Ghetto University...

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I just want to thank everyone who contributed to these two threads yesterday. As usual Cynic gets at the beauty and promise of conversating over the net:


Historians tend to think in terms of precedents. Reading the post, and the thread, I'm reminded of the odd practice in cigar factories of appointing a lector, or reader. Factory managers hired a lector with a good, strong voice to read to their workers, keeping their minds occupied while their skilled hands wrapped tobacco leaves in tight rolls. Although the lector was paid by the owners, he was able to suggest his own readings - and the selection was typically left to a vote of the workers themselves. Novels, newspapers, political tracts - the selections were eclectic. But the results were striking - manual laborers receiving all the fruits of an education they never would have been able to afford:
 
"We were the best politicians in the country," claimed Herman Baust. 'They would talk on every subject of the country -- what the Congress was doing, everything. . . . They were very well read people." In Manchester [NH], the Belgian cigar makers sometimes got into fights over issues. "Once in a while two of them would go outside and have it out," Frank Shea remembered. "Out in the street." While political and economic discussions could heat up the atmosphere, there were times when the shop would become so quiet, "you could hear a pin drop."
The most famous such reader was Samuel Gompers, who used the education he gained to organize the skilled cigar workers, and went on to create the American Federation of Labor. There is real power in knowledge. And while the lector began in Cuba, and never spread beyond some percentage of the cigar factories in this country, online lectures are accessible to anyone with internet access and speakers. Not universal, of course, but far from uncommon. Anyway, great list.

When Dwayne Betts first pushed this idea there was some sense, perhaps in its framing, or in its vocabulary, that we were underrating the college experience. On the contrary, I think the college experience is rather incredible. I have a hard time imagining myself as a writer, without Howard University. Yesterday, I met the president of a small HBCU in Kentucky, and I could not stop beaming. 

But all of us, for various reasons, aren't going to succeed there. And all of us who do succeed there will not have the chance to fully explore our curiosities.  Despite the Kanye West allusion, these discussions are not a substitute for higher education. But they are a way for us to continue to push one of the great values of the university--humble but relentless inquiry. 

Indeed, on the contrary, I have been fantasizing about pursuing that doctorate in European History. It'd be nice to learn French. And German. To read some of those original source documents in the languages they were written. When I left college, I was still a boy--immature, undisciplined, and wholly lacking in confidence. The rather brutal absolutism of writing and parenting aged me in the best possible way. I'd love to see what sort of student I'd make now.

But until that time, as Cynic notes above, that pursuit of scholarship need not be left to professional scholars. There is so much information in our colleges and universities, so much of it walled-off. (Profound as it is, who the hell knew what the Hajnal Line was? I didn't.) Whenever, I hop on JSTOR, I start fuming. I'm not saying every American is going to be an intellectual. But I believe that we'd be a stronger country if we worked on closing that between gap gown and town. 

Here we will have both.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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