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As originally published in
The Atlantic Monthly

November 1965

Higher Education for the Negro

A graduate of Howard University, with a Ph.D. from the University of Rochester, Bernard Harleston is an associate professor of psychology at Tufts University. He is chairman of the faculty committee on Negro education, and last summer served as director of the Pre-College Center at Tufts, where eleven Negroes from Mississippi and sixteen white high school seniors from Massachusetts lived and studied together

by Bernard W. Harleston

For the large majority of college-bound Negro Students, the procedures and decisions in making Applications to colleges are in certain respects relatively simple. In the first place, they are spared the anguish over whether to apply to a Big Ten School, an Ivy League college, a Seven Sisters college, a small New England college, or a somewhat larger private university on the West Coast. Such choices simply do not exist for these students. Second, Negro students escape the trauma of college boards and selection by college-board scores. In general, the colleges which at present exist as real alternatives for them either do not require college boards or do not use them as a final selection device.

But the Negro students have to struggle with a more fundamental problem: they have to gain confidence -- in the face of considerable evidence to the contrary -- that higher education will open up for them economic opportunities which will provide security, social mobility, and a greater sense of personal worth. Some of the most promising Negro students decide quite early in their schooling that such a belief is without validity and reject completely the idea of continuing their education. For many of those who enter college, this struggle with self-doubt accounts in part for the fact that seven out of ten Negro students who enroll in Negro institutions drop out before graduation.

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Negro institutions educate the majority of Negro students who go to college. Of the 123 Negro colleges and universities in the United States, 119 are located in the 17 Southeastern states and the District of Columbia. Thus, most Negro students pursue their higher education in what is geographically a very narrow area of the country, an area that has not been noted for intellectual enlightenment or educational innovations. There is both irony and tragedy in this situation. The irony is that the doors to higher education for Negroes should swing open most widely in states with the greatest prejudice toward the Negro and with a strong belief that Negroes cannot profit from higher education. The tragedy is that the educational opportunities which many of these institutions offer are so limited in range and depth that what they call higher education is at best a cruel hoax, a hoax that really was started long before, in the segregated kindergartens of our towns and cities. The origins of inferior education -- poor and inexperienced teaching, insufficient books, and inadequate facilities -- have their roots there.

Few of the Negro institutions have reached or can hope to reach full educational maturity. I mean by maturity an able and intellectually curious faculty and student body, adequate library resources and laboratory and classroom facilities, and an intellectual climate committed to academic freedom and intellectual integrity. Many Negro institutions lack the facilities and budget for an ambitious curriculum. The curricula lack diversity and show an imbalance in favor of the humanities over the natural and social sciences, since the cost of maintaining laboratory facilities for natural science courses far exceeds the financial resources of many of these institutions. Finally, there is little evidence of a healthy respect for academic freedom. In many Negro institutions the abilities of both students and faculty members are circumvented, and in effect, unchallenged, by an incentive system in which conformity is rewarded and individualism is rejected or punished.

Few of these Negro educators ever achieve publication. In part, this is due to the lack of research facilities and the absence of institutional support for creative work; in part, it is due to the lack of preparation by many of the faculty for independent and original work. But there are other considerations also. These institutions have no traditions that encourage involvement in scholarly activities. Since one's peers are not involved in research, there is neither motivation to engage in scholarly effort nor observable rewards for so engaging. Further, there is little intellectual gratification from sharing one's ideas or views. Thus, despite the intensive and dedicated teaching in Negro institutions -- and there is considerable evidence of both -- the majority of them impose, directly and indirectly, constraints and limitations on their teachers which become insurmountable barriers in the pursuit of academic and intellectual excellence.

FROM the point of view of the needs of the students, the educational opportunities in most Negro institutions are at best limited. To be fair, many students in these institutions are stimulated and even strained by the demands and challenges which confront them. There is, also, a long list of distinguished Negro Americans, not to mention the African leaders, whose liberal arts education was obtained at one of the Negro institutions. But the fact that the large majority of Negro students have to attend Negro institutions is significant in itself and raises serious questions about the implications of the limited educational opportunities.

In the first place, intellectual talent is wasted by a program of protracted mediocrity in which ordinary college-level study is impossible. Many of the male students who drop out of Negro institutions cite the lack of challenge as one of their reasons for leaving. Again, the range of available models with whom the student can identify, and whose intellectual behavior and commitment can serve as a guide, is narrow and lacks diversity. Many of the great and distinguished teachers in the colleges and universities of this country have been judged to be great because they were inspiring teachers and because they had attributes that caused them to be appreciated as models. But as the Carnegie Corporation Quarterly recently observed, "Negro academics have been cut off from the opportunity to develop a strong sense of professionalism, of kinships with their colleagues in their own disciplines, of being effective participants in the entire academic adventure -- of seeing themselves as biologists or historians or physicists rather than solely as teachers."

The effects of the relative absence of models in Negro institutions are evident in the occupational and professional choices of the students. In 1962-1963, more than half of all the degrees granted by eighty-five Negro institutions were degrees in education. Very few degrees were taken in the arts, philosophy, English, business, and engineering. This heavy disproportion occurs not only because Negroes are attracted to teaching per se; it also reflects the employment opportunities -- the kind of security -- that have been available to the college-educated Negro. Many companies and businesses which are now eager to add Negro personnel to their staffs are surprised indeed to discover that there are few Negroes who are qualified and who do not need intensive on-the-job training. There have been no models to support and reinforce certain occupational aspirations; furthermore, many occupational choices simply have not been open to Negroes. Whitney M. Young, Jr., of the National Urban League, recently observed that "when job opportunities in some fields are opened, everybody wants the superior Negro. We get calls for accountants who should have the qualifications of Ralph Bunche and for secretaries who can type 180 words a minute and look like Lena Horne. We run out of such people pretty rapidly."

This interdependence of educational experience and job opportunity accounts in large measure for the current widespread concern about the inequality of educational opportunities for Negroes. It is a concern driven to the surface by the explosive protests over job discrimination, and to a lesser degree, by the racial imbalance in the elementary schools. At the psychological level these protest demonstrations have dramatized the frustration and the despair that second-class education and constricted and limited employment opportunity produce. Insistently they raise the question, Can our society continue to lose a significant amount of creative, intellectual, and productive talent because a sizable segment of the population is forced to reach maturity under conditions of cultural deprivation?

In response to this question, a number of colleges have rapidly developed programs to improve and increase educational opportunities for Negro students. Oberlin, Yale, Hampton, Berkeley, Tufts, Wisconsin, Howard, Carnegie Tech, Brown, Michigan, Reed, Cornell, and Dartmouth are only a few of the colleges that are engaged in specific efforts. The programs are directed to one of three goals: strengthening Negro institutions, identifying and supporting promising Negro candidates for college admission, and strengthening the pre-college background of potentially able students.

In an effort to strengthen Negro institutions, several Northern universities -- Brown, Cornell, Michigan, and Wisconsin -- have "adopted" or formed "sister" relationships with Negro institutions. Brown's relationship is with Tougaloo College in Tougaloo, Mississippi. Cornell's is with Hampton Institute in Virginia. Michigan's is with Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Wisconsin has a multiple relationship involving Texas Southern, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical, and North Carolina College. The development of these formal relationships is an outgrowth of the far older tradition of student exchanges between white and Negro institutions. For some time past, colleges like Wellesley, Yale, Denison, and Smith have participated in student exchanges with Negro institutions such as Howard University and Fisk University. The new programs, however, are more ambitious: they provide for faculty and student exchanges, consultations on curriculum development, advisory conferences on administrative procedures, and the possibility of joint participation in research projects. In addition, there is the opportunity for faculty members from the Negro institutions to take refresher courses or participate in short-term institutes and workshops of a professional nature at the sister university.

The attractive features in such arrangements are obvious: the wide variety of people participating and encouraging interaction at all levels, the increasing depth of the students' experiences, and the conscious effort to upgrade the faculty. The University of Wisconsin stated it fairly when it said that "this exchange will benefit both the southern institutions and the University of Wisconsin. Fresh viewpoints will be brought to our campus, as well as good doctoral candidates. The education of our own faculty and student body through exposure to a completely new set of problems will be of lasting effect."

Yet, there are serious limitations which are equally obvious. The faculty and student exchanges are episodic, providing only short-term and intermittent contact. In addition, there is the very real danger that a superior-subordinate relationship will develop between the Northern and Southern institution. For example, if the participants from the Negro institution take undergraduate and graduate courses at the Northern university while the Northern participants at the Negro institution engage primarily in teaching, then a superior-subordinate relationship will have been established. There are other more tenuous aspects. For example, Brown University recently announced that a pilot effort would be undertaken at Tougaloo College in which the students would be taught Standard American English as if it were a foreign language. Brown officials explained that "the language problem is central to the academic deficiencies of many college students," and that regional language habits that vary significantly from standard English impose severe social and classroom handicaps. But the Negro students involved are aware of a difference and a condescension which breeds resentment.

Without setting up formal relationships, several colleges have held summer institutes for teachers from Negro colleges to give them an opportunity to study the latest developments in their fields and new methods of teaching them. During the summer of 1964, Indiana University offered an institute in English. Carnegie Tech, Princeton, North Carolina College, and the University of Wisconsin offered institutes in history, physics, biology, and mathematics, respectively. Ten institutes were offered in the summer of 1965, including one in business administration at New York University, one in economics at Wayne State, and one in psychology at the University of Michigan.

A SECOND major approach has concentrated on seeking out and admitting promising Negro students to predominantly non-Negro institutions. With the cooperation of groups like the National Merit Scholarship Corporation and the National Scholarship Service and Fund for Negro Students (NSSFNS), several colleges, among them Amherst, Williams, Vassar, Harvard, Radcliffe, and Roosevelt College, are admitting and offering financial support to more Negro candidates. Also, some colleges have made tours of Negro institutions in search of promising students.

These efforts of non-Negro colleges to enroll more Negro students have been bitterly criticized by some Negro educators. In the first place, most of the universities have been seeking out only those Negro students for whom the probability of success is quite good. These institutions operate under the paternalistic shibboleth that it is unfair to encourage Negroes to enroll unless we know they can make it, for a failure would be psychologically harmful and would do them a grave disservice.

In addition to being unduly protective, this view virtually guarantees that only a very small percentage of Negro students will be admitted, for they have to be selected on the basis of test scores, rank in class, and other criteria that have been correlated with success in college. Unfortunately, these criteria are prescribed for a middle-class urban population. It is doubtful that they apply in the same way to applicants from other cultural backgrounds. In a recent study of the performance by Negro students who were aided by NSSFNS in their efforts to enter non-Negro colleges, Professors Kenneth Clarke and Laurence Plotkin found that the dropout rate was less than one quarter the national average dropout rate. While the academic performance of these students was not exceptional, their achievements were far greater than what would have been predicted by such indices as college-board scores, family income, and educational background. The authors concluded that their determination to graduate and to achieve a measure of economic success accounted for their successful performance. Our present selection tests do not measure these motivational forces.

A second criticism, in truth a corollary of the first, is that universities and colleges have been raiding the Negro institutions of their most outstanding students. In a candid denunciation of such tactics, Dr. Rufus Clement, president of Atlanta University, recently said that when these universities take the best students, they leave the Negro institutions without an academic cream of the crop and without able and effective leaders for the student body.

The real challenge that confronts the non-Negro universities is to seek out and invest in risk students, students who show promise and potential but whose academic background and cultural experiences do not fit within the middle-class pattern of most undergraduates. The present conservative and selective course that most institutions are following will not meet this challenge. Our colleges and universities must develop long-range programs of financial, academic, and consultative support for large numbers of these students so that many more Negroes can have access to first-class liberal arts education.

THE most recently developed support for higher education for Negroes is the pre-college study program. These programs, as they have been developed by schools like Tufts, Oberlin, Princeton, and Dartmouth, have two aims: to strengthen the academic background for college, and to motivate students to aspire to a college education. The details of the programs vary with the participating schools, but in general, the programs of summer study focus on all aspects of English and mathematics. In most instances the emphasis is on both remedial work and new explorations in these disciplines. In addition to the academic work, the students participate in cultural and athletic activities.

The participating students come from the eighth to the twelfth grade, in most cases from local schools. Thus in the Princeton Summer Study Program of 1964, forty boys (thirty-three of them Negroes) who lived within a seventy-five-mile radius of Princeton University were selected. Programs sponsored the same summer by Oberlin, Berkeley, and Carnegie Tech similarly drew from local residents.

On the other hand, some colleges have developed their programs so that students from diverse geographical, cultural, and racial backgrounds can be brought together. In the Summer Study Center which Tufts University sponsored this year, thirty-nine students who had just completed the eleventh grade spent six weeks on the Tufts campus at no personal expense in a program of academic, cultural, and social activities. Eleven Negro students in the program came from Mississippi, and twelve Negroes students and sixteen white students came from the Greater Boston area. The academic program consisted of an intense course in mathematics; an intense course in English, including writing, literature, and rhetoric; a seminar titled "Man's Expanding Perimeter," in which the students examined the meaning of man in contemporary society; and visits to the various departments and laboratories of the university. Students attended four theater presentations, made trips and tours in and around Boston, had a weekend at a camp in western Massachusetts, participated in organized sports, and went on weekly picnics. Each student was selected because he showed ability to do college work. The long-term effects and the contributions of this experience to the success of these students in college remain to be revealed. But it is certainly clear that programs like this can both strengthen educational backgrounds and devise methods for identifying promising students.

Dartmouth has developed a pre-college program which is unique in its emphasis on preparing boys for preparatory school. The rationale is that academic and cultural enrichment come only when the disadvantaged youth is removed from his usual environment. The Dartmouth program, called A Better Chance (ABC), was started in the summer of 1964 and consists of eight weeks of study in English and communications and mathematics. Emphasis is also placed upon social learning, athletics, and cultural events. In the first year of the program, fifty-five disadvantaged ninth- and tenth-grade boys participated (forty-four of them Negroes). Forty-nine entered a preparatory school in the fall. Project ABC is administered in association with the Independent Schools Talent Search Program, which selects the boys and obtains the necessary contingent admission to one of the sixty-three participating preparatory schools. In 1965 Mount Holyoke introduced a comparable program for girls.

The development of pre-college programs has not been limited to non-Negro institutions. Hampton Institute has sponsored a pre-college program whose goal is to reduce the percentage of failures among pre-college freshmen and to help students toward a successful transition from high school to college. The Hampton program is well attended by Negroes from many states, only a few of whom then enroll at Hampton. However, this program is not designed for, nor does it tend to attract, culturally or economically disadvantaged students.

Perhaps the most ambitious program of pre-college study has been developed by Educational Services, Incorporated, with the support of the Carnegie Corporation. Under the direction of Dr. Herman Branson, chairman of the department of Physics at Howard University, ESI has set up pre-college campuses in six cities: Howard University (Washington, D.C.), Texas Southern University (Houston), Morehouse College (Atlanta), Fisk University (Nashville), Dillard University (New Orleans), and Webster College (St. Louis). Each center enrolled two hundred high school seniors from low-income families, both Negro and white, for Saturday classes in English and mathematics and an intensive eight-week summer session, plus programs of cultural and athletic events. ESI has developed special curriculum materials for strengthening the verbal and quantitative skills of the students.

While all these efforts have opened up new avenues, they seem unlikely to affect much more than the surface aspects of the basic problem of disparities in access to higher education. None of the programs gets directly at the risk student, or involves the colleges in investments in students for whom the prognosis is in fact quite poor. Many of the pre-college programs select their students on the basis of test scores and other traditional indices of ability. Yet the largest pool of Negro students consists of youths, and in particular, male youths, who are of average or better IQ but who do not excel on any of the traditional selection devices. To reach these students and hold out to them the promise of an opportunity to continue their education requires a more extensive commitment of energy, money, and other resources than the colleges have been willing to make. And it also is likely to involve far more frustration, for many of these students will fail to respond successfully. But education has in the past traditionally involved, and even courted, risks of various sorts. Many of these risks -- such as the experimental programs at Antioch and Goddard -- have become the basis for outstanding educational advances. We all know individuals who as beginning students were slow starters but who blossomed into distinguished scholars and statesmen.

In business, in politics, in the professions, in the technological fields, and even in the military services, the college degree is essential, and colleges prepare the manpower for the large majority of the vital tasks in our society. But they have been unable or unwilling to exercise boldly and creatively the power and influence on our social systems that would match their responsibility. There are some indications that this is changing. For example, the president of Yale University recently proposed that colleges like Yale develop training programs for the Peace Corps that would be available to the student during his undergraduate career.

In that same spirit I should like to propose that colleges and universities sponsor the operation of an Educational Service Training Corps, a formal program of training for service to primary and secondary education. The Educational Service Training Corps would be to education what the Reserve Officers Training Corps is to the military services. The Educational Service Training Corps would not train professional teachers or interfere with an undergraduate majoring in education or preparing for teaching. Rather, the Educational Service Training Corps would create a corps of aides who would work in deprived areas. Through lectures, field trips, and seminars, the program of the Educational Service Training Corps would give training that would permit the students after graduation to take college-sponsored and supervised jobs in these areas. They would work for the kind of educational and social reform which would bring to an end the social, political, and cultural alienation so evident in our major cities.

As we reach for more and more Negro students, the question of what will happen to Negro institutions will become critical. As I see it, the concept of the Negro institution is an anachronism which today lacks validity and social relevance. As centers of learning, Negro institutions, like Negro education itself, must be integrated into the larger context of higher education. They must be representative of the full range of educational experiences, opportunities, and commitments.

Clearly, not all the existing Negro institutions can hope to meet these criteria. Many should be vigorously assisted in their efforts to attract able students of all races. Howard University in Washington, D.C., a distinguished university which is rapidly becoming truly integrated, is perhaps the most outstanding example of this kind of development. Other former Negro institutions, such as Bluefield State College and West Virginia State, have already been transformed into interracial colleges. Schools like Hampton Institute and Lincoln University are actively seeking out non-Negro students. Certain other institutions should be either closed or radically changed. In supporting them, state and local officials effectively cut the Negro student off from access to the more mature and sophisticated white institutions.

Some of the present four-year Negro colleges should be converted to strong integrated junior colleges. In many respects the junior college is a brilliant feature of American higher education. It nurtures the late bloomer who in a four-year liberal arts college might well be destroyed by the experiences of the first two years. Further, it helps many students to find themselves -- to experiment with course offerings and the processes of learning without the pressure of having to decide immediately on an area of concentration. The junior college frequently attracts as teachers able people who are interested only in teaching and wish to avoid the pressures of research and publishing. Finally, the junior college offers an opportunity for older people to resume their education in a challenging setting.

Still others of the existing Negro institutions should be converted to pre-college centers which are sponsored by established white and Negro institutions and perhaps supported by federal funds. For a long time to come young men and women will show the scars of cultural deprivation, social and economic impoverishment, and racial imbalance. At present we deny these individuals an adequate chance to catch up and move on to a college education. Yet many white students whose parents can afford it are sent to select schools where they "bone up" on how to get into college and how to survive in the classroom. Should not all students have the opportunity of college-oriented preparation? The widespread development of pre-college centers would offer to the deserving Negro student a similar opportunity to prepare and compete for college admission and to hold his own in any course of study.

To a far greater extent than ever before, the problems and issues in Negro education bear directly upon the fate of higher education in general. The pressures for greater access by Negroes to higher education will rapidly increase as the squeeze resulting from economic barriers to mobility and social improvement increases. The response of the white institutions to these pressures will have to be decisive, for a considerably larger number of Negroes -- not all of them potential Phi Beta Kappa students -- will be demanding a college education. Boldness rather than caution and conservatism must guide the policies of non-Negro institutions in providing education for more Negro students. For example, they will have to go far beyond their current, no-risk policy of seeking out the top 12 percent of the Negro candidates for admission. They should admit candidates from the top 35 percent or 40 percent of Negro students. To do this is to accept the risk of academic failure on the part of some of these students. But with that hazard comes a challenge -- to bend the resources of a university to the needs and aspirations of Negro students who have not been (and often cannot be) adequately prepared for a college education. To ignore the Negro's inequality of condition is to make meaningless his equality of opportunity.

Return to Flashback: African-American Education

Return to Flashback: Black History, American History

Copyright © 1965 by Bernard W. Harleston. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; November 1965; ; Volume 216 No. 5; pages 139-43.

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