CITY ON A HILL

TESTING THE AMERICAN DREAM AT CITY COLLEGE

Eschewing hand-wringing and political rhetoric for close, critical observation, freelance journalist Traub (Too Good to Be True, 1990) delineates a unique—and uniquely representative- -institution: New York's City College. Traub spent a year observing classes at City College's Gothic Revival campus, which sits atop a hill in Harlem. Founded in 1849 as an egalitarian experiment, tuition-free City College came into its own when the great turn-of-the-century tide of Jewish migration provided it with cohorts of driven students. Their legendary successes—a record number of Nobelists and intellectuals such as Irving Howe—made it a beacon of educational possibility for the nation. A confluence of social and political upheavals, however, brought radical changes in the 1960s, key among them guaranteed admission for graduates of New York City high schools to the City University of New York, of which City College is a part. An exploration of the drastic results of this ``open admissions'' policy constitutes the main part of Traub's book. After limning the ideological conflicts that still continue among the faculty and in the press, he introduces us to its ramifications in City College's classrooms. We meet a range of teachers, from dedicated idealists, struggling to reach woefully under-prepared students while maintaining some semblance of academic standards, to the controversial Afrocentrist professor Leonard Jeffries, whose authoritarian anti-intellectualism Traub exposes as he captures the human, even tragic dimension of Jeffries's sway over uninformed followers. Empathetic portraits of City College students stand at the book's center. Many flounder in remedial courses; difficult family situations and looming financial disaster burden most; the dedication of contemporary immigrants provides some hope. But Traub's ultimate accomplishment is to reveal the consequences for one legendary college of the inadequacy of our urban high schools and vocational training, and our general devaluation of learning. The crisis continues—and as goes New York's City on a hill, so goes the nation. Exemplary reportage, essential for all those debating the future of American college education.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 1994

ISBN: 0-201-62227-0

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Addison-Wesley

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 1994

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Ill-suited for a book-length work, Kirn’s premise found more effective expression as a feature in The Atlantic.

LOST IN THE MERITOCRACY

THE UNDEREDUCATION OF AN OVERACHIEVER

Slapdash memoir from Time and GQ contributing editor Kirn (The Unbinding, 2007, etc.).

From the moment he aced the SAT at his rural Minnesota high school (he doesn’t reveal his score), the author’s fate, like those of his fellow overachievers, was sealed. “I have…comrades in estrangement,” he writes, “way out here on the bell curve’s leading edge, where our talent for multiple-choice tests has landed us without even the vaguest survival instructions.” Kirn aims to burst the pretensions of the American ideal of meritocracy—astutely analyzed in Nicholas Lemann’s The Big Test (1999)—but the narrative is too narrowly focused on the author’s personal ascent through the ranks, from elementary school through Princeton and Oxford. Many of his experiences—the desire to leave Middle America and reinvent himself as a respected intellectual; his rage against affluent roommates who expected him to cough up a percentage of the expense of buying high-end furniture; his humiliation after being savaged by jealous, less-talented students in a writing workshop; his cocaine-and-sex binge with the daughter of a wealthy art dealer—make for evocative, entertaining reading, but it’s unclear how they advance his argument against the meritocracy. Kirn’s strengths are honesty and humor. He admits that he, like many who attend Princeton and other Ivy League schools, was a social climber driven by the desire be a part of the East Coast Elites, not by a hunger for knowledge. He says he faked his way through college, and that enlightenment came after a mental breakdown. Kirn also uses his considerable powers as a novelist to paint vivid scenes of comic debauchery. Some of the drunken, drug-addled escapades are reminiscent of The Ginger Man, but J.P. Donleavy wisely avoided the temptation to cast his antihero’s drunken recklessness as a metaphor.

Ill-suited for a book-length work, Kirn’s premise found more effective expression as a feature in The Atlantic.

Pub Date: May 19, 2009

ISBN: 978-0-385-52128-4

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2009

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THE SECOND BATTLE OF NEW ORLEANS

THE HUNDRED-YEAR STRUGGLE TO INTEGRATE THE SCHOOLS

A first-rate case study of the endless struggle for black equality. Baker (The Justice from Beacon Hill, 1991, etc.) portrays the experience of New Orleans as a microcosm of the war over desegregating public schools that should have ended in the Supreme Court's 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education but quite painfully did not. She delineates the city's complex racial dynamics from the antebellum period through the 1960s, showing how the window of promise that Reconstruction opened for blacks was slammed shut in 1896, when the Supreme Court held in Plessy v. Ferguson that Louisiana could pursue the creation of ``separate but equal'' public facilities. The heart of the story is the decades-long war in the courts and the streets that finally led to the end of legal segregation in the city's public schools, only to be followed by the de facto segregation created by ``white flight'' to private schools and the suburbs. Like most good popular history, this book is character-driven; it demonstrates that events are the product, not simply of impersonal forces, but of individuals facing specific challenges. These include J. Skelly Wright, the white federal judge who issued order after order to implement the Brown decision in his native New Orleans and consequently endured years of vicious attacks; black lawyer A.P. Tureau, who strove tirelessly for the equal justice promised by the Constitution; and Leander Perez, the racist mastermind of white Louisiana's resistance. Despite the ultimate legal victory of those who sought to enforce Brown, the ``Second Battle'' of New Orleans is a tragedy. The city's whites, like those throughout the South in the 1950s and '60s, clung tenaciously and often violently to their system of racial superiority, and the city's economic and social elites only exercised the leadership necessary to bring the battle to an end when it proved bad for business. A vigorous, thorough, but ultimately saddening work. (16 pages b&w photos, not seen)

Pub Date: May 22, 1996

ISBN: 0-06-016808-0

Page Count: 576

Publisher: HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 1996

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