Making School Cool

America needs a new way to sell education to young, black men.

Getty Images
Getty Images

It was the sort of conversation writers dream of stumbling upon. Walking my clothes back home from the laundromat, I ended up behind two young men from Brooklyn — both of them black, male and no older than 19. They were engaged in a discussion about higher education, the best part of which went like this:

Boy 1: “I’m tellin’ you, son, you gotta get that master’s degree.”

Boy 2: “Oh, yeah? Why?”

Boy 1: “Because once a ni**er get his master’s, a ni**er be [having sex with] women he thought he could never [have].”

As a 20-something raised on the bawdy comedy of Eddie Murphy and George Carlin, my first instinct was to laugh—that conversation was the stuff Def Comedy Jam bits are made of. But as a writer keenly interested in African-American culture, my next instinct was to think, “Know what? Maybe he’s onto something.”

On July 14, President Barack Obama announced his American Graduation Initiative. By investing in the nation’s community colleges and increasing financial aid for college students, the president hopes that America will have the world’s highest proportion of college graduates by the year 2020 (both Russia and Canada currently beat our rates). Though not impossible, it’s an ambitious goal by any measure, and reaching it is going to be considerably more strenuous if the black community continues struggling with education the way it has in the past.

By now, it’s an age-old problem: How to keep African-American students interested in academics? More than that, how to get young black men—who continually underperform at school compared to black women—not just going through the motions in their classrooms until they’re 18, but thriving in the educational environment? It’s one of the hardest questions facing America today, and its difficulty is augmented by the question preceding it: Why don’t many black men want to thrive in school?

One of the most compelling answers to that latter query—Why?—comes from Orlando Patterson, a Harvard sociology professor who’s spent a large part of his career studying the habits of young African Americans. In a 2006 New York Times op-ed piece, Dr. Patterson discussed what his research told him about the academic failures of black male students. His conclusion was equally enlightening, frightening and pathetic:

So why were they flunking out? Their candid answer was that what sociologists call the “cool-pose culture” of young black men was simply too gratifying to give up. For these young men, it was almost like a drug, hanging out on the street after school, shopping and dressing sharply, sexual conquests, party drugs, hip-hop music and culture, the fact that almost all the superstar athletes and a great many of the nation’s best entertainers were black.

In short, to many young men in the inner city, a life full of material things is more attractive than a life of learning. Or, as the late rapper Notorious B.I.G. put it, “Money, [prostitutes] and clothes—all a brother knows.”

Later in his essay, Dr. Patterson suggests that academia take a “new approach” to understanding African-American men. I couldn’t agree more. But what exactly is the best “new approach” to take?