A Hard Schooling
by Jimmy Breslin
The Nation magazine, July 5, 1999
The following is excerpted from columnist Jimmy Breslin s
June 7 address to graduates of the City University of New York.
I come here and discover that you are merely another fraud
in the city university system. Of the 150 receiving degrees today,
you hold only 191 jobs. That is less than two jobs per student.
Oh, there are one or two who have three jobs, but they represent
a weak attempt to improve the class average. And the scandal is
that some of your second jobs are only part-time. You don't even
have the guts to hold two regular jobs.
What right, then, do you have to take five and six years and
more to get a degree? Just because Father didn't leave an estate
in proper order is no excuse. Before coming out here, I worked
the crowd, and I found a couple of women who were receiving-food
stamps! They want to feed their grubby little kids or some aging
grandmother while they go to a city university. Mayor Giuliani
should be told immediately! I know the mayor is terribly uncomfortable
with anybody who isn't white, and, therefore, looking out over
some of you, I can see why he must start frothing when he thinks,
These people are going to make it!
I never understood what the phrase "thirsting for knowledge"
was about. It is a phrase for another world. In this universe,
you know you need to learn in order to survive, to feed children,
to hold on to jobs. And you know you must fight your way to every
book, every class, every hour of study. You suffer to gain knowledge
at a college level. It turns you into rock-hard people who must
learn and won't stop until they do.
You have children at home and jobs to pay for their care.
And something out there is attracting you, calling to you: Just
keep working. They want you off any assistance to finish school
and down in the subways on work gangs that replace people with
jobs. Oh, they don't need you in the city at all, you people of
demonstrated strength going into a city that forgot how to fight.
I can tell you that on a Sunday afternoon in June of 1969,
[mayoral candidate] Herman Badillo was on Channel 2 news, and
he announced in the midst of a political debate that he was against
open admissions to the city university system. By day's end, my
late friend Murray Kempton reported that Badillo came to his apartment
on West End Avenue and asked Kempton to explain to him just what
open admissions meant.
It meant the old way of this city, that each city college
was supposed to draw students from assigned high schools. The
college influence on the high schools was supposed to insure that
any student was capable of coming to college. Badillo was against
that. He didn't know what it was that he was against when he was
against it, but he was against it.
Now, thirty years later, still in a political debate, still
wanting to be mayor, Badillo has changed what he is against. He
not only is against open admissions but he appears to be against
everybody sitting here today. He represents the myth of competency.
Nobody knows what they're doing. What they do is pretend that
they know, and act and look as if they know. And they know nothing,
and whatever happens does so by granular motion, much as a glacier
moves, by accident.
The great writer Ben Hecht announced one day: "The competition
is idiots. Keep it under your hat." I can't tell you to use
that as a guide from now on. You came this far without advice
from some cheap speaker. But it does appear that you have the
will and the strength and the flame, and out there they live in
fear, and they try to use statistics that lie, and there is no
way that you cannot grind them down and get to where you want
to go, to where you rightfully belong. You have so much that we
need. You must not be denied.
Jimmy Breslin is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist with Newsday.