Monday, November 22, 2004

Not the whole story

I wish to join David Adesnik of OxBlog in congratulating City College for its sudden success at producing Rhodes Scholars. Adesnik notes that his own father went to City College; my grandfather went there, and my father went to Brooklyn College, so I am somewhat familiar with the history of the NYC public colleges.

Which is why something seemed off to me about the way Adesnik describes the role that City College has played in this nation's history:

"For my father, as well as for countless other children of working-class immigrants from Eastern Europe, City College occupies a mythic place in American life. The College is an institution that opened its doors to those didn't have the financial resources or social connections necessary for admission to the Ivy League. Nonetheless, the intellectual standards for admission to the College were almost impossibly high because there was so much talent waiting to be discovered among the new Americans of New York, Eastern European or otherwise. As a result, City College became known as 'The Harvard of the Proletariat'."

All true, but with a key detail missing. In referring to "children of working-class immigrants from Eastern Europe" and to those who "didn't have the financial resources or social connections necessary for admission to the Ivy League," Adesnik makes the City College story a generic one of class struggle, the American Dream, or what have you, when the reason those of Adesnik's father's generation and the one before it were going to City and not Harvard had something to do with money and class, but also something to do with quotas. There were quotas keeping the number of Jews low at many top universities (not at Chicago, though). City College's place in Jewish-American history was recently noted in the recent NYT article about current, non-Jewish City College students' interest in Jewish studies. So, in a sense, City College was made great as an indirect result of other schools' discriminatory policies.

I can't quite figure out why Adesnik made this omission. Would mentioning that so many of the striving working-class students in question happened to be Jewish have been too controversial, would it have otherwise ruined a charming tale of wholesome meritocracy? Would it have implied that Adesnik was attributing the success of City College to the fact that so many of its students were Jewish? I'm not suggesting Adesnik should have written a post brimming with Jewish-American pride, but explaining the reputation of City College and leaving that fact out is like telling someone the history of Howard University and never mentioning that it's a traditionally black university. It strikes me as weirder to leave out such a detail than to include it, at any rate.

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