Ghetto Mind

The Ghetto Mind

Prejudice, Politics and the Enclave
in the American University


Much of what we call prejudice arises from a simple lack of familiarity. Whenever two communities have ( owing to barriers of custom, clan, religion or economics ) infrequent and guarded contact with each other, they come to regard each other as essentially different.

Over time this mutual suspicion becomes habitual. In times of stress or economic hardship these latent assumptions ( of which people by and large are not even aware ) will rise to the surface, determining collective behavior. In the worst case they degenerate into ignorance and hatred. What abided formerly as a vague uneasiness or disinclination to associate with the other is now overcast with blinding evidence, anecdotal proofs of inferiority or immorality, and predispositions to violence. We can see this process at work in two widely distanced social milieu. Indeed, it is only because the gulf between them is so vast that it does not occur to us to draw comparisons between them: ethnic ghettos and academic departments of fields of knowledge.

Most descriptions of the closed, alienated or ghettoed mind focus upon the former. Let it not however be forgotten that the maintanence of narrow-minded enclaves called "Mathematics", "English", "Business Administration", "Art History", etc., though apparently benign, has extensive consequences in terms of the propulsion of a destructive fragmentation of all intellectual activity throughout the culture. In our own time this has led to a society which is becoming progressively more innumerate, functionally illiterate, manually inept, politically passive, and xenophobic: backward in the fullest sense of the word.

For our purposes a ghetto will be defined as any self-contained community whose identity depends upon the maintenance of artificial social barriers. Externally imposed, these barriers quickly internalize. This is not correlated with poverty: an affluent all-white suburb is as much a ghetto as New York's Bedford-Stuveysant, Philadelphia's Columbia Avenue, or Boston's South End. This model fits modern education as much as it does the economic, religious or ethnic enclaves to which it is usually applied. In this article I am interested in examining the intellectual consequences of the creation of mental ghettoes out of the various branches of knowledge. It is a pathology which grows in intensity with the size or importance of the institution. Places such as Harvard, Stanford, Columbia, Princeton, etc., the large, prestigious research universities, although under the delusion that they are giving a better sort of education, do the most thorough job in staining the souls of their enrollment with ignorant prejudices about how English majors can never understand mathematics, or how sociology is inferior to physics, or how it is a waste of time for an anthropologist to go to a seminar in French poetry.

The mathematician who comes to believe that his mind has a structure different in essence from that of an English scholar actually shuts down a region within thought. In some sense the entire portion of his brain from which literary and linguistic thought are generated is blocked off. The academic community, including faculty, undergraduates, graduate students and even administration, becomes a collection of 'ethnic' ghettoes ( 'ethnicity' of math, 'ethnicity' of linguistics, etc... ) sustained, just as they are in the slums of the big cities, by prejudice and fear.The professors of each discipline transmit this largely unconscious bias to generations of students, who may then go through life believing that certain kinds of ability are, owing to some intrinsic defect in their makeup, either forever beyond their grasp, or beneath their consideration.

For over 40 years I've been a direct witness to prejudices that exist between different disciplines: the fatuousness of academic politics; over-specialization ; the avoidance of interaction with departments other than one's own, or at most some closely related field, ( physicists may show up once in a while at mathematics seminars); the stagnation of intellectual life in the dreary corridors of university departments filled with scholars who , functionally handicapped by excessive co-habitation with a single mode of thought, rot over the decades. Universities have become the Third World of the mind. The poverty of imagination which is a characteristic of most scholarly discourse in the modern world results in large part from the hostility felt and shown towards other disciplines and the consequent inability to grasp their intellectual tools

An eloquent example: one might think that, with the introduction of the New Math into public education in the late 50's and 60's, it could be taken for granted that scholars in letters, history, biology, economics, ( even in so-called 'criminal justice'! ) should be able to use basic notions from modern algebra such as sets, unions and intersections, Boolean algebra, isomorphisms, commutative and transitive laws, modular arithmetic, etc.

I'm being ingenuous, because we all know that the educational experiment of the New Math collapsed at the same time, in societies as different as Russia and the U.S., all over the world. This squares with my basic thesis: the root of the failure of the New Math lay in the enclave mentality endemic to the trans-continental university.

Two Anecdotes

This Smith College legend has waited years for the telling; its time has come. In the summer of 1986 I was canvassing Smith for customers for Ferment Press books and potential Ferment subscribers. Bruce Hawkins of the Physics department, a very fine and hospitable man, had been a subscriber for a few years. After visiting him, I set out to conquer the campus.

In every department there was at least one person who got on the phone after I left to call campus security and complain that " Someone's going around selling books!" A pudgy, middle-aged lumbering cop finally caught up with me towards evening. Selling anything, whether Fuller brushes, lottery tickets or scientific essays at costhe explained, was against campus regulations. As he spoke to me he fixed me with a peculiar look in his eye. I promised to stop; I'd had a fruitless day in any case. He continued to regard me strangely. Then he bent over, ( no mean task given the size of his paunch), placed his mouth close to my ear and whispered: "What kinda books you got in that bag?" (To paraphrase Allan Ginsburg in "Howl", This really happened)

In the summer of 1984 I visited the campus of Washington University. Eventually I ended up in English department. Four faculty members were sitting about a table in a small lounge. Perhaps my mistake was to describe myself as " a writer". In any case, this was my first visit to St. Louis and I was interested in meeting other writers. Unlike the sophists at Smith they were neither surprised, threatened nor offended by my question. The teacher sitting closest to the replied: "We aren't writers. We're scholars. " After a moment or so, a woman at the back of the room added : " All of the writers are at the Breadloaf Writers' Conference."

Higher Education as the Formation of Intellectual Handicaps

All forms of prejudice handicap thought: this inquiry has touched on prejudice emerging within the sub-divisions of thought itself. The roots of this form of prejudice are surprisingly similar to those that give rise to all other forms of intolerance. Persons working in a certain field see themselves almost as a different race because they cultivate a unique mental aptitude. And there are those who go so far as to find a genetic basis for this uniqueness. It seems scarcely credible today, but I actually know of a mathematician at U.C. Berkeley who , during the Jenny Harrison tenure crisis, asserted that women can't do mathematics because their brain capacity is smaller.

There exist, in the structure of university life, physical barriers between disparate talents and modes of thought, almost as if there were barriers inside the brain itself between the right and left hemispheres. These are products of politics; resentment; fear; competitiveness; a continually reinforced inertia that fixes ones time and energy within the narrow obssesional circle of a single subject, or a small number of related subjects; finally, a blithly unaware. (Universities are known hotbeds of blithe unawareness) that one's cultural horizons have been shaped by prejudices as blatant as those that handicap Afrikaners, anti-Semites, Serbs, Croats, or religious fundamentalists.

Because educators do not seem to have realized that the invention of mental categories is a form of prejudice, they pass this world picture on to their students, who upon graduation will inject them into the mainstream of culture. So that a John Allen Paulos must write a series of books to prove to us that almost all Americans are innumerate. Or a Rudolf Flesch, in his still relevant ,"Why Johnny Can't Read?" can report that almost all of us are functionally illiterate . Or a Suzuki ,by means of the famous dictum : "All Japanese children speak Japanese", must remind us that we all have musical talent. Or a Stephen Jay Gould, who is obliged to devote many hours to fighting Creationism, wonders aloud where this peculiar ideological virus has its breeding grounds. Or the news media can continue to get away with deluging us with oceans of specious, misleading or worthless statistics.

It would be futile to speculate further on the direction in which these phenomena are leading us. It may be that many of them will work themselves out in the long run. My intention has been achieved if I have succeeded in identifying a particular species of ideological disease, a form of racism within the intellect, deeply embedded in academic life and leading ultimately to a handicapped society.

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