Thinking Work and Group Progress: An HBCU Imperative

As of midnight last night, the United States federal government is temporarily closed.  The U.S. Congress has capitulated to the afore-stated agenda of the gerrymandered zealots of the Republican Party.  This knot of non-politicians have a simple agenda:  rescue their idea of what "America" is from the rising tide of color portended by the country's demographic shift and retreat behind the comforting ramparts of state and local entities.  Robert Reich, hardly alone in his assessment, captured the general arc of this strategy in a March 2013 column for

The creeping balkanization of the American state, fed by recent decisions at the hand of the Federalist Society-stocked Supreme Court of the United States, has the potential to unleash another round of intellectual warfare over the basic truths and notions of the American project.  This has the potential to ultimately be a good thing.  If Nick Bromell's new book, The Time is Always Now: Black Thought and the Transformation of American Democracy , is to be believed, African perspectives on the nature and experience of American democracy have always fed our perspectives.  What Bromell has not made clear is how Black sites of professional intellectual work have helped generations of African people develop and sustain these ideas and the movements they have birthed. To be fair, as Martin Kilson and others have observed, contemporary ignorance of the relationship between Historically Black Colleges and Universities and the production of Black Radical Thought is fairly commonplace.  The time, however, has come for HBCU-sited thinkers to take up the work of previous generations and set it once again at the center of the project of group progress in America.

Can Howard and her sister HBCUs become more consistent sites for nurturing deep intellectual work that transforms learners and scholars, fosters collaborative critical content mastery, and feeds deep-seated social change? Rhetorical pronouncements notwithstanding, this is by no means a settled question in a time of for-profit vocational education, with its inability—and lack of desire—to challenge or displace the long-standing American social and economic order. 

The first month of school saw Howard's students, staff and faculty observe signal moments in the memory of Africans in the United States. We marked the fiftieth anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington.  We hosted an intense and provocative consideration of the purpose, direction and future of Historically Black Colleges and Universities during Howard-Morehouse-Spelman week.  We paused to contemplate the martyrdom of Black children in liberation struggles, symbolized by the “Four Little Girls” of Birmingham

The heartfelt pledges to convert the sacrifices of the past to work dedicated to improving individual lives and reshaping social, economic and political institutions made at these rituals of recommitment often obscure a lingering question. Have we lost our sense of collective purpose, sacrificed in part on an altar of material comfort and an easy aspiration to individual achievement as progress?

There is no more poignant moment to consider the tension between the pursuit of group objectives and individual ones than the civic nationalism of Constitution Day. At Howard, we observed Constitution Day with a debate on Stop and Frisk laws between a students from Howard’s undergraduate Martin Luther King, Jr. Debate Team and a debate team from the School of Law. Observing this exercise made me once again pause to consider the nature and relationship of America’s African citizens to the American national project and social structure. The question of African citizenship in America remains unsettled, our group status too often conflated with the fortunes of select individuals. In disconcerting ways, our thinking classes are less equipped to engage in the work of group social change than at any time since the end of enslavement.

A central challenge facing students in general and African students in particular is the challenge of literacy. The substitution of technological literacy for mastery of deeply-developed reading, thinking and research skills and techniques has obscured a crisis-level gap between the type of content mastery necessary for optimal participation in emerging national and international networks and our developed capacities at present. Simply put:  We all need more words and the will and skill to use them to influence people, institutions and politics.

College students are well enough along in the school year to have enthusiastically imbibed and repeated the official and organic sense of collective mission represented in their home institution's mission statements. We have certainly dutifully done this at Howard. Now, having sworn our fealties, we have settled into the rhythms and business of daily academic life.  The business of completing tasks, assignments, meetings and activities almost always displaces any sense of excellent learning and collaboration. Our learning objectives are filtered through a lens of vocational practicality that leaves little room for sustained, slow contemplation.  Everything at the university feels as if it issues forth at warp speed. Speed and efficiency at task completion is, sadly, too often a proxy for competence, for mastery, for knowing.  In fact, as Richard Arum and Josipa Roska write in their book Academically Adrift , acquisition of social networking skills, glossed with the approximation of content familiarity and critical thinking is what Mark Edmundson refers to as “knowingness” in his new book Why Teach: In Defense of a Real Education.

Over the arc of the next few blog posts, I hope to consider the topic of thinking work at Howard, considering small moments that might translate into larger conversations about purpose, literacy, commitment and critical intelligence.  In the words of Fred Moten and Stefario Harney, perhaps we can lay bare the energy and sentiments of an “academic undercommons,” or the lives of thinking, living and committed people engaged in the hard work of translating thinking into doing, not as a grand theoretical project but as a subversive, joyous and life-giving act of self-liberation.  And perhaps, just perhaps, we can reach out, one to the other, and do more together.