[Reprinted in part at The Answer Sheet/Washington Post]
It is a nearly imperceptibly short stroll from Donald Trump to Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
The arrogance of power is disturbing for its privilege and bigotry, but exponentially so for the cavalier brashness and absence of self-awareness.
Regardless of the position of power, Scalia’s racist pronouncements about the proper place of black students in higher education (again, a short stroll from Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s rejecting affirmative action, which he himself used during his journey to the highest bench) are inexcusable.
However, there is another story Scalia is inadvertently exposing: the negligence of higher education to teach the students who walk the halls and sit in the classrooms after being admitted.
First, let me pull away from that specific claim to a broader pet peeve of mine: remediation.
Throughout formal education at every level from pre-K through undergraduate (and even graduate) education, students are commonly labeled as remedial (a designation that suggests the students are not at the proper level for the course they are taking) and thus need some additional services.
This is total hogwash. All students are remedial, and no students are remedial. You see, the essential role of a teacher and formal education is to identify what knowledge and skills students have as well as what knowledge and skills students lack (or need developing), and then to teach those students in that context.
So let’s return to higher education in the U.S.—where attending college is not a basic right and is often a tremendous burden on students and their families.
A significant number of students are admitted to colleges and universities for the benefit of the institution (full-pay students and athletes, as the most prominent examples). Often, these populations fall into the deficit category of “remedial,” or would be the exact type of student Scalia has now further marginalized with the damning blanket of racism.
From the most accessible (in terms of admissions) public colleges to the most selective private colleges, access to higher education in the U.S. is nonetheless selective. In other words, colleges accept students (and reject others) under the tacit contract that each belongs there and that the university will provide the education for which the student (or someone) is paying.
Again, I have taught public school in the impoverished rural South and a selective liberal arts university. Those two contrasting settings have shown me that I often taught diligently at the high school setting with little concrete evidence I was successful (many students still scored low in standardized testing), but that I could (if I chose to do so) do very little with my college students (extremely bright and motivated) and there would still be ample evidence of success.
And herein lies the issue no one is talking about beneath the embarrassment of Justice Scalia’s comments: vulnerable populations of students admitted to colleges and universities (often black, brown, poor, and English language learners)—those who need higher education the most, in fact—are being neglected by the very institutions who admit them, often after actively recruiting them (again, the athletes).
I teach two sections of writing-intensive first-year seminars each academic year. The greatest difference between my successful and struggling students is their experiences and relative privilege before attending my university.
Successful students have “done school” in ways suitable for college expectations before while struggling students rarely have.
Too often, echoing Scalia, many in higher education shake their collective heads and mutter these students shouldn’t be “at our college.”
Too often, higher education is a place that simply has no interest in teaching—opting instead for gate-keeping (masking privilege with the bigoted allure of measurable qualifications), housing students for a few years, and then taking credit for the outcomes.
Scalia’s bigotry, like Trump’s, is repulsive, but let’s not fool ourselves that it is somehow unique to a few privileged apples (who Ta-Nehisi Coates calls “oafish racist[s]”).
That bigotry is institutionalized all across the U.S., and our places of higher education too often are those institutions.