Dear Charles Blow,
I was quite moved by your account ( 1/26) in the New York Times of the treatment of your son by the Yale campus police.
I should like to share a story with you. It also occurred on the campus of Yale University. The year was 1968. I was Director of the Yale Summer High School. Created as a spin-off of the War on Poverty, it brought together 150 underprivileged students, the majority of whom were students of color, from all over the country for a summer of study and “uplift” on the campus of the Yale Divinity School. These were exceptionally bright kids, many of whom were not succeeding in traditional schools, not because they couldn’t but because they chose not to.
One such student was a young black woman from Chicago named Tonda. Her counselor considered her ” a child of the ghetto, an absolutely unique experience; old far beyond her years in the experience of living ; insightful about herself and others, sensitive to a fault, loyal, challenging, and complicated, with an insatiable curiosity about life.”
Of herself, she wrote: “I am a young woman of seventeen who is greatly concerned with the “going-on-ness” of history– about what it means to be a black student in America, the world, and the universe. Adults find me interesting, a bit cynical and rash, but willing to cooperate. I am, however, threatened by authority when it’s not used properly. As an independent person, I decide which rules to break in order to get the job done without causing damage to myself or my future.”
Tonda was a talented but difficult person with whom to deal. I had removed her from certain classes because of an incident of self-violence, and was counseling her privately. She was a handful…but well worth the effort.
I go to lengths in describing her that you might better understand what follows.
It was 1:30 a.m. on a hot and humid Saturday night in late July. The girls from a visiting Upward Bound program were boarding their bus for the trip home following a dance we had sponsored. It was one of those delayed exits — with much kissing, hugging and good natured horseplay, when two campus policemen on their evening cruise suddenly arrived on the scene. They immediately sensed “trouble.” They stopped right in front of where the kids were gathered, shone their headlights on the kids. Disturbed by what he saw, the officer at the wheel took to his speaker, blaring a warning to disperse Things tensed perceptibly, as the good cheer among the students vanished, turning instead into confusion, indignation, and anger.
Suddenly, out of the shadows emerged Tonda. She grabbed me by the arm and said “Larry come with me.” She then stood me directly in front of the headlights, took me in her arms and planted a kiss right on my lips. That did it. The scene exploded with laughter. The tension lifted perceptibly, and all so magically, the crowd dispersed.
Still shaken by the police response, I went over to the patrol car, telling our protectors they had acted precipitously and that their actions could easily have provoked a serious incident. Unfazed by my criticism, the officer pointed to the departing students, noting “We sent them on their way. Now you see what they understand.” They then revved up their car and pulled away into the darkness.
There are many aspects of the recent incident that are troubling–not just the reaction of the police. There are, for example, the letters of response to the Times, neatly orchestrated by the Editor that they might reflect an awkward but proper balance– reminding us how police have also been guilty of misconduct in their treatment of white people….Really now!
What has gone most unnoticed, however, is the role of the University itself. The campus police are employees of the University. Like all good employees, they reflect in their actions the values and wishes of those who employ them. Governor Christie may not have been directly responsible for the lane closings on the bridge, but the actions of his subordinates were consistent with the tone he set for his administration, his interests, and his values–so too with the campus police.
Yale will make its proper apologies, and a few wrists will get slapped. This is, after all, the son of a distinguished columnist for the New York Times. This does not speak well of the University’s image. But university life for the most part will go on as before. There was never any self reflection about issues of race and income disparity before, and there will be little afterwards.
You can study most everything at a University but the University itself. Today we are confronted with a society in which the plight of the disenfranchised and the alienated, particularly young people of color, has accelerated geometrically. Yale, as with most institutions of higher learning, however, pays very little attention to issues of race or to social and economic inequity or to the implicit assumptions of an elite education. It fails to provide its students an opportunity to challenge the assumptions by which they are being educated and those of the society of which they are supposed to become its leaders. About such matters, it is totally non self reflective.
There is no place for the Tondas of the world at Yale. There was no place there for the Yale Summer High School which the University long ago dismantled together with other real links to real world issues. But does not one have the right to expect more of a university? What is after all is its proper mission?
I can only propose my most idealistic version: A university is that one institution best prepared to engage in utopian formulation–to move beyond the technological and political values that inform the rest of society. That’s strictly “academic,” you say. That is perhaps the problem. The subject cannot be treated academically. The total university must put itself on the self-reflective line: administration, student body, faculty, curriculum, residential arrangements, and the full range of interpersonal relationships.
The failure of our universities to assume proper responsibility, to fully comprehend the larger picture, and explore fully new ways in which men and women might learn, live and work together can only lead to an extension of the present state of thoughtlessness and polarization that continues to divide the nation. That is the real tragedy in all of this.
Larry Paros is a former high-school math and social-studies teacher. He was at the forefront of educational reform in the 1960s and ’70s, during which time he directed a unique project for talented underprivileged students at Yale and created and directed two urban experimental schools, cited by the U.S. Office of Education as “exemplary” and later replicated at more than 125 sites nationwide.