Friday, September 14, 2012

Response to an Unpublished Comment

Yesterday a reader submitted a provocative comment on the "Best of Blogs" page. The following note is an edited version of an email that I sent to the reader in response. I've omitted any references to the names and statistics mentioned in the reader's comment that could identify specific persons associated with a specific HBCU for reasons noted in my opening paragraphs. As it happens, Gmail returned my response as "undeliverable" ... Given that I copied and pasted the reader's email address into my response, the reader must have mistyped his or her email address when submitting the comment ... or deliberately entered a false address in order to preserve his or her anonymity from me. No matter. The comment merited a serious response.

Dear Dr. Z,

I am not sure why you posted your comment on the HBCU-Levers blog because the blog has not explicitly addressed the specific issues you raised about any HBCU. However, these issues hover over most HBCUs, so the HBCU-Levers blog is probably as good a place as any to consider them. I won't publish your comment because of a policy decision I made a long time ago not to publish negative news or comments about specific HBCUs. I adhere to this policy for two reasons:
  • First, readers interested in negative news about specific HBCUs can satisfy their curiosity by reading the mainstream media that never misses an opportunity to remind us of HBCU failures: so the Gateway and its blog focus on HBCU success stories and on strategies for achieving more HBCU success;
  • Second, too many (but by no means all) black Americans do not perceive critical comments, however constructive, as challenges to be met, as illuminations of flaws to be eliminated. Too many black Americans tend to greet critical comments with defensiveness, with denial, and with aggressive reprisals against the critics, i.e., by "killing the messenger." As a black man, I still see vestiges of this defensive/denial reflex in myself, but a long time ago I accepted the very inconvenient truth that I usually can't solve problems if I deny that they exist.
Fortunately I am constantly reminded of two glaring exceptions to this generalization ==> black professional athletes (and serious wannabees) and black professional entertainers (and serious wannabees). These hard driving strivers dominate certain sports and certain entertainment sectors in numbers that far exceed the percentages that would be expected from our percentage of the total population. They practice long hours and propel themselves to peak performances, sometimes at the cost of extraordinary psychological and physical pain. Indeed, their success has become my "Black man on the moon" mantra ... I suspect that you are too young to have heard the challenge that was thrown out in all manner of difficult situations during the 70s and 80s after the successful Apollo moon landings ==> "If we can put a man on the moon, why can't we ...  eliminate poverty, secure world peace, cure cancer, etc, etc, etc " ... So nowadays I wonder, "If black men can work hard enough to dominate NBA basketball, why can't we excel at STEM and high finance?" 

About ten years ago I concluded that the problems facing (black) educators of black students could not be solved with our current teaching methods, no matter how how high or how low we set our pass/fail standards:
  • Conclusion #1. A disproportionately large number of black students are underperforming at all levels of the U.S system of education because today's teaching methods aren't powerful enough to move most black students from where they are to where they need to be. We need to develop far more powerful teaching tools that will enable the vast majority of black students to deserve passing grades. (Note: some of these tools must be designed to intensify black students' motivation to study harder.)
  • Conclusion #2. More powerful teaching tools won't be developed as collateral benefits of something else, e.g. they won't be discovered if the  "something else" is a research program designed to improve the teaching techniques employed by elite colleges for the benefit of their highly prepared students ... as in the research programs that will be conducted on the edX MOOC platform that that will develop tools that will help M.I.T. and Harvard improve their on-campus classes ... I think it's highly unlikely that the M.I.T/Harvard tools will meet the very different needs of most non-elite black students. The only institutions we can depend on to develop the powerful tools that most black students really need are HBCUs.
  • Conclusion #3. Only a few HBCUs can become creative players in these developments, but a large percentage should become discerning consumers, actively deploying the most promising tools as they emerge from these research efforts
  • Conclusion #4. The powerful new tools will be based on creative applications of information technology, the same technology that has produced exciting, mind-boggling breakthroughs in so many other important sectors of our economy.
I am saddened by the pain that you feel for your students, a pain that is shared by all of us who are strongly committed to providing the best possible educational opportunities for black students. Fifty years after the Civil Rights victories of the 60s, it is deeply disheartening that the American education system serves most of its black students so badly at all levels.


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