Commentary: This Tale of Woefully Aimless Coeds Reveals a Stunning Lack of Black Pride – at a Black College
It would be easy to blame bitterness as the reason a black columnist would expose how rampant dysfunction at a struggling black college ultimately forced him to abandon his personal promise to teach at one.
But Bill Maxwell's story of his two years at Stillman College, recently splattered on the pages of the St. Petersburg Times, doesn't reek of bitterness.
Instead, it resonates with tough love.
More such love will be needed if HBCU's like Stillman, a Tuscaloosa, Alabama school with less than 1,000 students, are to uphold the mission for which historically black colleges and universities were established in the first place. That is, to give black students whose skin color once barred them from a higher education a chance to get one.
That mission is still relevant today -- in an age in which low SAT scores and abysmal high school preparation would close the door on college for many black youths. Today, HBCUs are probably their last chance to redeem themselves from a secondary school system that has failed them.
Unfortunately, many of the students that Maxwell encountered didn't see college as a new beginning.
They saw it as a way to extend the aimlessness that had ruled their former years.
Maxwell, who gave up a $70,000 a year job at the St. Pete Times to teach and to re-establish the school's journalism department for a pittance of $33,000, wrote about his frustration with students who refused to do even basic things like purchase the required textbooks for class. This they refused to do even though they had book vouchers.
He even had to force one class to walk with him -- as if they were little kids -- to the bookstore to look over their shoulders to make sure they bought their books.
You'd think their being made to do that would embarrass them -- especially since they are grown people.
But it didn't.
There were also the mass absences on days when major assignments were due, as well as routine absences. Class, it seemed, got in the way of their hanging out with their friends.
Then there were the wasted efforts. Like the time Maxwell and a colleague reserved hotel rooms on their own credit cards to take six students to the 10th anniversary of the Million Man March in Washington, D.C.
They wound up canceling the trip because on the morning they were supposed to leave, only one student showed up.
To be sure, Maxwell also wrote of students who had overcome blistering odds to get to college -- like a young lady who was reared in numerous foster homes -- and who did grasp why they were there. They followed the rules and became successful.
But the anti-intellectualism of most of the students, as well as frustrations with bureaucracy and jealous colleagues, eventually forced Maxwell to return to the St. Pete Times.
It's too bad that happened. What would be worse, however, would be for Maxwell's experience to be dismissed as a bitter rant instead of a wakeup call.
What Maxwell encountered at Stillman, I fear, was the pervasive way in which nihilistic street culture has muddled even the minds of black students who are supposed to be aiming for something better in life. It's the same stupidity that governs criminals who spend more time learning the laws and what penalties they'll receive if they commit a certain type of crime, instead of seeing the possibilities that life can offer if they don't commit the crime at all.
For many students such as the ones Maxwell knew, the mentality is about the same. For them, college isn't about unlocking the opportunities that can come from working within the system, but about working the system period.
The students who wouldn't buy their textbooks, for example, obviously didn't want to be forced to read. Apparently, many of them figured that if enough of them didn't buy the books, their instructor couldn't flunk all of them. The same apparently goes when it comes to assignments, as Maxwell had to wind up abandoning his syllabus largely because of the students' lack of cooperation.
What's also maddening is how Maxwell's students apparently don't realize how much they cheat themselves when they do these things -- because by forcing instructors like him to lower standards because they won't even do something as simple as buy a textbook, they play into the hands of racists who make it tough for them to get jobs, and who believe that all black people are lazy and must have standards lowered for them.
If those students had any sense of real black pride, they'd be intent on elevating Stillman to a place of excellence, not playing into a stereotype.