By Cornelius D. Harris
I travel the world working in music and entertainment. A few days before returning to the University of Michigan for fall classes in 2005, I was in Japan, watching Hurricane Katrina laying waste to several gulf states. The real disaster was on the human side, the governmental side.
As a U.S. citizen, watching from abroad, I felt estranged not only from my own country, but from reality. The actions (or lack of) did not represent any country I was a part of. So I returned to what felt a bit like a foreign country, feeling like a bit of a stranger, disappointed with this place and feeling angry over what I felt was an open betrayal against Americans. I returned to a class by Professor Julie Ellison that asked what it meant to be a citizen.
Part of my healing process took place in that class and the work with the artist/educator Sekou Sundiata also played a role. His work is around the notion of the American Dream, and it helped to drive home the idea that while things are NOT necessarily the way we would like them to be, our dreams and our sense of who we are, are how citizenship becomes personal and history is made.
The experience had me reconsider history and culture in the context of citizenry and this in turn colored my conversations with others about music, culture, and southeastern Michigan, specifically Detroit. I view myself as a global citizen yet that global citizenry informs my own local citizenry too. Seeing the world of possibilities elsewhere inspires me in my work here.
This past summer I worked with the city of Highland Park, Michigan, an economically depressed city in the center of Detroit, to program a music festival. We connected with the University of Michigan’s school of Art and Design via Nick Tobier, who brought a mix of experimental presentations involving technology and design to the event. In the same way that my exposure to different ideas and concepts while traveling inspired me, I wanted to offer others different ways of thinking and viewing the world from within their own city. I also think Teach For America does a good job linking students to the larger world, albeit post graduation. I’ve also done some work with Indiana University and the Archive of African American Music there because I think they are also places where there is a direct link between higher education and the ‘realy world.’
Unfortunately, this exchange is not the norm. Many community project based courses amount to not much more than glorified safaris and detract from the work being done by the organizations they use to offset “suburban guilt” or some other misguided idea. What makes things worse is the outdated notion that higher education equals a good job and a lot of money. That standard model of education doesn’t do enough to prepare students for life and how to get more out of it, politically, socially, financially, and creatively. But more than that, it starts to feels like there’s a hustle going on.
This extends to alumni support of student recruitment. I was one of many who would contact prospective students and talk about some of the great things the university had to offer in hopes of having them choose the Univeristy of Michigan for their education. I gladly did this for about two years. But I began wondering about the effectiveness of the campaign, so I asked if I could find out how many students I contacted actually chose my alma mater. The response was that it was impossible to get that information. Of course, I could get access to the student directory and find out if those students were there or not. I was being told that this most basic piece of information was “impossible.”
The upshot of this was that we were volunteering for work that might be completely ineffective, and the response to queries was dismissal. So I stopped. How could I be expected to advocate for an organization that would refuse to give me feedback? Mixed in with my mail requesting me to continue my involvement in the recruitment program were requests for money. I have yet to pay back money owed for this education, I’m volunteering to bring in more students, AND Im being asked to pay to support my “cherished memories.”
Sadly, recruitment isn’t about encouraging young people to get a great education, but about getting more money from as many young people as possible. New dorms have been built to accommodate more students, yet are there that many more faculty being hired to educate them? Will any of these students be able to get jobs after graduation? Will any of them be able to pay back the thousands spent to have the golden opportunity of future debt? I walked away from the recruitment program with more appreciation for what I got out of my time at university and more disgust with the grindhouse nature of what most will experience. I believe that post K-12 education can serve to open one’ss mind to incredible possibilities and position you to be a leader. However it can also be an expensive lesson in gambling on your future.
As I stated earlier, I consider myself a global citizen, but also a U.S. citizen. A country is only as strong as its people. If the people are poor, ill, undereducated, then so is your country. I don’t want to be from a loser country. Yet, if the educational misfires and inequalities continue, that will be the result. Again, I’m not certain what will change this, but I’ve got some ideas; plenty, to be honest, but that conversation is for a longer essay.
But it is the very conversation that we need to be having as a nation.