Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The troubled history of higher education

Book: Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America's Universities
Author: Craig Steven Wilder
Published: 2013 (Bloombury)
Pages: 288

Unfortunately, the basic premise of this book isn't surprising to anybody who paid attention in history class, and I say unfortunately because it talks about how slavery was entrenched in the founding of this colony, this eventual country, and the institutes of higher learning of both.

 Okay. I knew this going in. It's right there in the subtitle. Lay some hard truth on me here.

Turns out that the colleges and universities were all founded by rich guys, and all the rich guys at the time were slaveholders, so that labor/economy intrinsically became a part of the system. This is driven home by an extensive list of founders, early presidents, magistrates, [insert your favorite title for collegiate Grand High Pooh Bah here], etc. and what humans they owned. It's an exhaustive, depressing, and repetitive list without much insight into the college system itself beyond the "What was WRONG with you people? WHO THOUGHT THIS WAS OKAY?" that can be applied to the whole slavery system.

 That's just the first half, though. The second half gets more interesting as we move further from the founding and the colleges start getting settled into the cultural prestige of the country. Efforts to educate slaves and "civilize" Native Americans are put together by the best intentions of clueless white people but almost always fail, basically. The book doesn't quite get to the Civil War, but it pours the foundations into the growing unease and awareness of inequality.

 I liked this book okay, but it was difficult to get through the apparently obvious first part to get to the real sociology underneath, and a lot of it felt like "well, this is just how they did things back then" without much digging into why that ugly part of humanity seemed so vital that it didn't merit any special mention except as an afterthought effect of being rich back in the day.

 It's already back at the library because someone else has it on hold so I had to actually get something back sans renewal this time. I did learn stuff but not as much as I wanted to.

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