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After astronaut Sally Ride died earlier this week, Andrew Sullivan put up a column criticizing her for remaining closeted as a lesbian until her death. Though her achievements would “vastly outshine” her “flaws,” he wrote, “the truth remains: she had a chance to expand people’s horizons and young lesbians’ hope and self-esteem, and she chose not to.”

When a lesbian wrote to him to say that it was precisely because Ride wasn’t openly gay that she was available (in the writer’s conservative family and community) as a strong, independent, feminist role model growing up, and that “her closet is part of the reason I escaped mine,” Sullivan sneered:

“Which makes Sally Ride what? A role model for staying silent so as not to disturb the status quo? Once you accept the logic of prejudice, even as a tool for other laudable goals, you’ve given the game away.”

And that makes his most recent post on the subject really really weird.

This morning Sullivan returned to the subject of Sally Ride (for I believe the sixth time) to apologize for the tone of some of his earlier comments but to affirm his basic perspective.

“Perhaps a better way of putting this is to point to another American icon, Bayard Rustin. Rustin was both black and gay and was integral to the organization behind the civil rights movement. But because he was gay, and had been arrested for public sex, he chose to be in the background of the movement and not be a spokesman, in case it would do more harm than good. But in his later life, he became a towering figure for many of us looking for role models as out gay men. He was a pragmatist but also deeply principled, like the late Frank Kameny. He faced, like Ride, several layers of discrimination, but he found the strength to break through all of them. …

“No one is required to be a hero. But no one either should be judged too weak or oppressed for heroism. Sally Ride had a choice, as did Bayard Rustin. They are both heroes to my mind in many ways – and far more distinguished human beings than I could ever be. But Rustin’s shoulders are higher and broader. You can see the future from them.”

This is completely wrongheaded.

Bayard Rustin didn’t simply “choose to be in the background of the movement … because he was gay, and had been arrested for public sex.” He was pushed to the background of the movement after his conviction revealed his sexuality to the public.

As a closeted gay man, Rustin had been a prominent organizer within the nascent civil rights movement. As a known homosexual, he was fired from the Fellowship of Reconciliation, shunned by former allies, forced to contribute anonymously or surreptitiously or not at all. His involuntary ejection from one closet, in other words, had the effect of forcing him into another.

This is “the logic of prejudice,” and it’s a logic that Rustin well understood. Rustin didn’t choose, and wouldn’t have chosen, to go public as a gay man in the fifties. That choice was made for him, and it had exactly the negative effect on his life’s work that Ride must have feared disclosure would have had on hers. Bayard Rustin’s life stands as a refutation of Sullivan’s stance, not an affirmation of it.

And Sullivan compounds his error with his use of a fragmentary Rustin quote, apparently lifted from Wikipedia:

“Today, blacks are no longer the litmus paper or the barometer of social change. Blacks are in every segment of society and there are laws that help to protect them from racial discrimination. The new “niggers” are gays. . . . It is in this sense that gay people are the new barometer for social change. . . . The question of social change should be framed with the most vulnerable group in mind: gay people. “

The first thing that needs to be said about this quote is that it’s taken from a speech which Rustin gave when he was seventy-four years old, while Sally Ride died at sixty-one. So to present his words as an attack on Ride’s silence is shoddy and ugly.

But beyond that, Sullivan’s version of the speech is so chopped down as to render its true meaning unrecognizable. Rustin wasn’t arguing, as the excerpt seems to suggest, that the fight against racism had been won. Rather, he was saying that it was because overt racism had been largely driven underground — because “nobody would dare to say any number of things about blacks that they are perfectly prepared to say about gay people” — attitudes toward gays had become the “barometer” of public opinion on social justice issues.

And Rustin went on to identify this position as leaving gays with an obligation to other social justice movements, in an analysis that rebukes Sullivan’s. “Because we stand in the center of progress toward democracy,” he declared, “we have a terrifying responsibility to the whole society.” The gay community, he said, “cannot work for justice for itself alone,” cannot tolerate prejudice in its ranks, and must “recognize that we cannot fight for the rights of gays unless … we are ready to fight for a radicalization of this society.”

A society that leaves young children and the elderly in poverty, Rustin said, is a society that will never grant justice to gays. And so “these economic concerns must go hand-in-hand and, to a degree, precede the possibility of dealing with the most grievous problem — which is sexual prejudice.”

This, like all of Rustin’s life work, is an eloquent statement of the interconnectedness of struggles for change. Where Sullivan claims that marshaling your energy for your chosen battles is “giving the game away,” Rustin understood that any movement to uplift the oppressed must operate strategically, consciously, mindfully. Where Sullivan excoriates Sally Ride for her apparent calculation that she could do more to change society for the better from within the closet than outside, Bayard Rustin would have nodded. He would have understood.

He would have embraced her as a friend, a comrade, a hero.

I’m pretty sure I read John Scalzi’s terrific essay Being Poor when he first wrote it, back in the days after Katrina, but I don’t think I ever made it all the way through the comments. I’m about halfway through right now, and I wanted to share this one:

Being poor is turning down a college scholarship because the college wanted the parents to contribute $800 for the year (!) and it might as well have been $80,000. (Later I found out that if we had just called the school and explained, they would have found a way for me to attend. But how were we to know? I was the first person in my family to attend college.)

A little while ago I linked to a piece by Malcolm Harris on what he calls the “generational war” being waged against American youth. Harris’s argument has been criticized from the left by a blogger named Freddie DeBoer who writes that he’s “using the language of revolution to justify what is, at its essence, a dispute among the ruling class,” making “a case that is simply antithetical to the left-wing project: the notion that recent college graduates are the dispossessed.”

College is, DeBoer writes, the province of the elite:

Less than a third of Americans has a bachelor’s degree. The racial college achievement gap is large, and it’s not shrinking; it’s growing. Social class is extremely determinative of access to college education.  From 1970 to 2006, those from the highest income quartile had a better than 70 percent change of holding a college degree. Those in the lowest quartile? 10 percent.

This is an important argument, and so it’s important to point out that DeBoer gets it wrong.

Yes, the white and the wealthy are more likely to attend college than the black (and Latino) and the poor. That’s true. But it’s less true than it’s been in the past, not more. Just look at the numbers:

In 1975, 64.5% of high income Americans who graduated from high school went on directly to college, while 34.8% of low income high school graduates did, a ratio of 1.9 to 1. A wealthy student, in other words, was nearly twice as likely as a poor one to go immediately to college, even if they both graduated from high school. By 2009, that ratio had dropped to 1.5 to 1. (The gap in high school graduation rates by income has remained largely constant during the same period.)

Comparing educational outcomes by race shows similar results. In 1970, a white American 25 or older was 2.6 times as likely than a black American in the same age group to have a college degree. Today, that ratio is 1.5 to 1. When whites and Latinos are compared the gap has narrowed more slowly — from 2.5 to 1 in 1970 to 2.2 to 1 in 2010 — but again, the trend is positive.

(And though DeBoer doesn’t discuss gender, it’s worth pointing out how much things have changed there too — in 1960, men earned almost two-thirds of bachelor’s degrees and ninety percent of doctorates. By 2009, women were earning 58% of all degrees granted in the United States, and more than half of doctorates.)

There are still racial and economic barriers to higher education, of course, and the issues that Harris identified are prominent among them. But DeBoer’s characterization of college students as white and privileged ignores major changes that have taken place in the demographics higher education in recent decades, perpetuating the tired stereotype of student activists as coddled whiners.

The American student body does not reflect the nation as a whole, not yet. But it comes closer to doing so than it ever has in the past, and the folks in Occupy who are fighting for higher education access and student debt relief are fighting to bring it even closer.

The “I hate my students” essay has long been a Chronicle of Higher Education staple, and for obvious reasons. The classroom can be a frustrating place, and sometimes a prof just needs to vent.

The problem with venting in the Chronicle, though, is that you open yourself up to rebuttal.

Meet Ann Hassenpflug.

Hassenpflug is a professor of education, and she doesn’t like it when her students bring their kids to class. Because she doesn’t like it when her students bring their kids to class, she has a “no kids in class” policy in her syllabus, and she gets mad when that policy is violated.

Fair enough. But some of the reasons behind her rule — a child might sit in a student’s regular chair  — seem trivial, while others arise from problems that could be easily dealt with in other ways.

I myself allow students to bring their kids to class as a last resort. Most of my students are women, many of them are moms. Stuff comes up. But yes, kids can be disruptive, so I have rules:

  • Don’t make it a regular thing. A kid in class isn’t an ideal situation.
  • Sit in the back of the room. Even a quiet child can be distracting.
  • If the kid starts acting up, slip out quietly and address the situation.

In addition to those rules, I have a warning: My class is a history class, which means we’re going to be talking about serious, difficult topics on a pretty regular basis. I can’t and won’t alter the content of the course to accommodate a child, and I won’t ask students to censor themselves either. If you choose to bring a kid along, what they hear is on you.

That’s it. That’s what I tell them. And about once a semester a student shows up with a kid in tow, and about ninety percent of the time it’s not a problem at all.

Now, Hassenpflug’s class isn’t my class, and she’s not me. What works for me might not work for her. I’m not saying she should open her doors.

But I will say that it doesn’t really sound like she makes a habit of explaining the reasons for her policy to her students, and that I suspect that decision may be causing some of the problems she’s having.

I’d love it if every one of my students memorized every element of my syllabus, but because I know that that’s never going to happen, I deal. I remind students at the end of class that if they came in late they should see me to get marked present. I mention my office hours several times during the semester, and encourage students to take advantage of them. I announce the date and time of the final exam at the last class session.

And if something is really important to me, I say so, and I say why, and I say it clearly and emphatically. (I’ve got a whole big speech on cheating. The better that speech gets, the less cheating I see.)

In her Chronicle essay, Hassenpflug gives no fewer than eleven reasons she prefers to have her classroom be child-free, but by her own admission she’s never shared any of those reasons with her students. “The students in my graduate education courses are teachers themselves,” she writes. “They should understand why bringing children to an adult classroom is inappropriate.”

Maybe they do, professor, and maybe their “understanding” isn’t the same as yours (mine certainly isn’t). Or maybe they understand that it’s not ideal, but think of it as the least-worst option in certain circumstances. Or maybe they’ve seen other students do it in other classes (or even yours), and they consider it part of the institutional culture of your program. Or maybe they’re just not aware that it’s one of your pet peeves.

I honestly just don’t get it. It’s your classroom. You’re in charge. You set not only the rules, but the tone. If this is such a big deal to you, take a couple minutes to say so, and to say why. The professorial whine about students’ lack of socialization to academic etiquette is ubiquitous these days, but of all the problems besetting our profession this seems like the easiest to fix.

Just talk to your students. Why on earth wouldn’t you?

Matt Yglesias recently linked to the above chart on college enrollment as an illustration of the huge size of the American community college student body. His thoughts on that subject are well made and worth reading, but it’d be a missed opportunity to end the discussion there.

Here’s a few other things that jumped out at me:

  • American higher education is overwhelmingly public. A full 77% of American college students are enrolled at public colleges and universities.
  • The for-profit sector is a tiny sliver of higher education enrollment, despite its outsized share of government grant and loan money.
  • Private research universities enroll only 4% of American undergrads, just one fifth as many as public research universities do.
  • Traditional non-profit private universities and colleges enroll only 15% of undergrads, and about a quarter of students in bachelors degree granting programs.
  • Taking private and public institutions together, only 24% of US undergraduates are enrolled at research universities.

Yglesias is right to point out the cultural invisibility of community college students, but our myopia extends far beyond the two-year/four-year split. Americans’ image of undergraduates is based on a higher education model that hasn’t existed in reality in generations, and those distortions have far-reaching effects on public policy and public opinion.

(Note: I haven’t been able to find the source for this chart, so it’s possible that some of its figures may be off. It does seem to reflect Carnegie data, however.)

About This Blog

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StudentActivism.net is the work of Angus Johnston, a historian and advocate of American student organizing.

To contact Angus, click here. For more about him, check out AngusJohnston.com.

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