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Honey, I shrunk the classroom.

The day begins at the subway station. A fresh-faced youngster just ahead of me drops his pocket change into the paper cup of a homeless man. "God love you," says the man, "and stay in school." Both a forlorn blessing and a weary tocsin, the comment nevertheless makes me think. When I taught in New York's CUNY system almost a decade ago, there were rumored to be as many as 3,000 homeless students. Today 42 percent of CUNY students come from families whose total income is less than $20,000, and 14,300 are on welfare.

Against this backdrop, I find distressing Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's and Governor George Pataki's efforts to "improve" SUNY and CUNY schools by such measures as eliminating open admissions, hiking tuition, enforcing a stiff time limit within which degrees may be obtained and eliminating remedial courses designed to prepare the woefully shortchanged graduates of certain New York public schools for the rigors of college coursework.

My CUNY students were undoubtedly the hardest-working and most interesting people I have ever met in my life. No group of people I have ever known believed more in the dream of education and all its promised possibility. I remember students who struggled in every conceivable way to stay in school. They were older than most, largely minorities and new immigrants, many with families, many working two jobs. They stayed afloat every way humanly possible, including napping on the subways, bathing in the library restrooms, farming the children out to distant relatives with better jobs -- all while trying valiantly to keep up in the classroom. That some of them needed more time to graduate, more help with coursework or more financial aid was not surprising -- nor was it a matter of merit.

But their tenacity was only part of a larger mosaic of the contemporary American struggle for a chance at education. For example, there was an article in The New York Times recently about a magnet elementary school opening in Queens next year. Hundreds of black, brown and working-class parents stood in line for days in order to gain a place for their children, pitching tents and braving torrential rams and icy winds. The media covered the event as though it were inspiring; I found it less so. The determined parents who invested those endless hours, taking time off from jobs and other duties, in order to stand in those windwhipped lines reminded me of my committed but overburdened CUNY students. The new elementary school, moreover, represents a model that the Mayor and Governor seemingly espouse for public universities: schools that compete by "magnet"-izing themselves with mall-like arrays of educational offering -- chess uptown, music downtown, science across the road -- all while promising a supposedly "core" curriculum "for the twenty-first century." But I can't help feeling that there is something seriously wrong with a system of education in which the most basic instructional offerings come hidden in a Wild West marketplace, a blinding blizzard of options carrying with them a sense of perpetual loss about The Road Not Taken. School-choice anxiety has become an insane obsession, the worst kind of class-consciousness gone mad.

I guess I could accept all this more if I believed, as many do, that this brutal competitiveness was really driving up the quality of all schools rather than just pounding to smithereens our basic commitment to equality of access and opporturnity. But for every model classroom in the public schools there are multiple others only a few blocks away, where less fortunate children huddle in Dickensian conditions, artfully dodging the tumbling cornices that seem not to have been repaired since Edwardian times, tracked so as to almost guarantee that they tumble into the the yawning chasm of educational disparity. It's no surprise, I suppose, that choosing a kindergarten seems as freighted as a date with destiny.

A friend of mine teaches in a decaying public high school where almost all the students are working class or poor. He speaks despairingly about his students, the smartest of whom qualify for all sorts of colleges but who simply don't have the money, who will go to junior college instead and have it held against them as though it were a matter of their innate intelligence or degrees of laziness.

"You know," he says, "those junior, supposedly lesser, `imitation' colleges, unpeopled by `elites.'" He talks about "all these smart, smart kids" who sleep their way through school. His principal requires that he write "sl" beside their names; but he always tries to wake them first. "Try to keep your eyes open," he says, but he knows that they have been looking after younger siblings, cleaning house, doing laundry, working extra jobs, helping their families make ends meet. He fumes about policies that will make it harder for such students to complete high school and now public colleges. "Homework!" he says. "Some of these kids don't have homes; and as for work, they work harder than most middle-class adults, if not always on school assignments. I'll give you merit," he says glumly.

The day ends at a fundraiser, where I hear a Prada-clad Yalie griping that CUNY's much-debated remedial-education programs are just "a high-priced version of midnight basketball." It is not good, this equation of programs to assist aspiring students with athletic busywork to keep "suspect profiles" off the streets and out of trouble. Some awfully powerful people have lapsed into an astonishing degree of cavalier anti-intellectualism, their thoughtlessness abetted by logo-like catch phrases whose chief attributes are minimalist condescension, succinct class bias and sleekly coded racism. But in a fiercely competitive world where gated country clubs are touted as the only real oases, flexible access to popular education remains our best assurance that those who actually believe in the American Dream most fervently do not expire prematurely from the sheer exhaustion of running a rat race for which there is no winner, in which there is no end.
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Title Annotation:Diary of a Mad Law Professor; efforts to change New York, New York, colleges by increasing tuitions, doing away with open admissions, and imposing time limits for degrees
Author:Williams, Patricia J.
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Apr 20, 1998
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