Commentary Magazine

City on a Hill, by James Traub

What Happened to CCNY

City on a Hill: Testing the American Dream at City College.
by James Traub.
Addison-Wesley. 371 pp. $25.00.

In its glory years, 1920 to 1970, New York’s City College (CCNY) provided free education to a student body composed largely of the children of poor and working-class immigrants, many of them Jews. From this material the “Harvard of the Proletariat,” as CCNY was known, produced generations of highly educated, upper-middle-class professionals along with eight Nobel laureates and a host of distinguished scholars and intellectuals (among them Sidney Hook, Irving Kristol, Daniel Bell, Irving Howe, Seymour Martin Lipset, and Alfred Kazin).

The times, and City College, have changed. Today, those of its students who manage to earn a diploma are often barely educated; the college, in fact, must labor intensively to produce any graduates at all. In two words, James Traub’s book explains what happened: open enrollment. That policy, hastily begun under intense political pressure in 1971, allows any high-school graduate, regardless of ability or accomplishment, a place in one of the seventeen undergraduate branches of the City University of New York (CUNY) whose battered flagship is City College.

Open enrollment has often been criticized, most famously—if ambivalently—by a former City College dean, Theodore L. Gross, who was fired for his pains.1 But Traub’s book has a different slant. Traub, who attended the real Harvard and who writes for the New Yorker, came to the topic of open enrollment as an outsider. In writing City on a Hill, he sat in on entire semesters of regular and remedial classes, hung around the CCNY campus, and kept up with a number of students and teachers over several academic terms.

Traub is a gifted and sympathetic storyteller, and his portrait of campus life is gently drawn. Although he occasionally pulls punches, and although he embraces various liberal nostrums, his book leads, willy-nilly, to devastating conclusions, showing to all but the willfully blind that no college has the power to transform individuals socially and intellectually who lack that power themselves.

In the course of City on the Hill, Traub takes the reader through class after class of usually appealing, sometimes sullen, often bewildered, almost always deficient students. These students are ill-equipped not just for a particular class or subject, but for learning in general. Most lack all notion of how to study or even the ability to read and write. They are unfamiliar with ideas and puzzled in their presence. These deficiencies are due to appallingly poor prior education and to the students’ chaotic lives on the social and economic margin.

Another reason why even the best at City College are so bad is that open enrollment, remarkably, guarantees entrance to students who cannot read, write, or speak English at all, and some of these students appear to have a shaky grip on their native languages as well. Traub reports that two-thirds of the students enrolled in English as a Second Language (ESL) drop out of such courses before entering the regular curriculum. And few of those who complete ESL courses, or the courses in elementary reading and writing in CCNYs euphemistically-named “college-skills” program, are likely to be able to absorb even what passes for a college-level education at City College today.

Is there anything to be done about this particular problem? Traub appears taken with some of the grandiose claims made on behalf of “composition scholarship” and with CCNYs “fluency-first” approach to teaching English. Its method is: simply get students to scribble or talk—and grammar, syntax, and diction be damned. Fortunately, Traub’s affection for these pedagogical fashions does not keep him from honestly presenting their results. Here is his report on three students subjected to City College’s most up-to-date language-teaching techniques:

[Hammeed] . . . had been in New York for eighteen months, and in that time he had acquired a version of English that was a parody of the fluency-first ideal. He stammered explosively, . . . and rather than pause to get things right in his head he simply talked without stopping or even breathing. He was almost completely incomprehensible, although once your ear got used to the violent cascade of his language you could begin to pick up some sense. Hammeed also misunderstood the simplest words. Sandra and Yaffa, on the other hand, didn’t speak at all; they knew almost no English. When . . . [the teacher] asked the students to write, . . . they were simply lost. . . . Sandra kept her pen poised above her notebook; she wanted to write, but nothing made any sense to her.

Traub is especially disappointing on the whole issue of academic standards. He lavishes praise, for example, on CUNY Chancellor W. Ann Reynolds’s College Preparatory Initiative as a bold attempt to hold entering freshmen to standards. But the “initiative” merely recommends strengthening the high-school curriculum, and makes it plain that students who do not take and pass high-school math and science courses will still be admitted. This policy parallels other examples of laxity, like the ESL faculty’s abandonment of a writing-assessment test on the grounds that it was too difficult for the students to pass. Everywhere the pattern is the same: when students fail to meet standards, the college abandons them behind a cloud of smoke.

Perhaps Traub’s difficulty here has to do with his notion that achieving equality of opportunity, which of course he favors, somehow involves a trade-off with standards. “I wasn’t sure how much equal opportunity I was willing to sacrifice in order to raise the standards,” he writes. But, as every page of this book powerfully shows, lowering standards does not—cannot—create meaningful equality of opportunity; it only produces dismal results.

Adherence to standards, in fact, explains why the only part of CCNY that functions reasonably well is its engineering school. As Traub points out, engineering students account for an astonishing one-quarter to one-third of the 1,200 students in a City College graduating class. (The humanities together provide just 50 graduates, and all of the sciences just another 60.) The engineering school succeeds by admitting only well-prepared students, working them hard, and holding them to the standards that prevail in the best schools in the country. But Traub misses the lesson here. He is so mesmerized, it seems, by the social role a college education can play that he forgets that social mobility is a desirable but secondary effect of college; its primary goal is, or ought to be, education.

And Traub never mentions what his book clearly shows to be the greatest cost of open enrollment: the by-now irreversible destruction of City College, and indeed of CUNY, as learning institutions. For even in the unlikely event that today’s academic and political leaders were to muster the courage to admit the emperor has no clothes, little would be likely to change. Open enrollment has brought in a huge cadre of counselors, administrators, and teachers—many tenured—whose careers depend wholly upon remedial students. Allied as they are with “progressive” ideologues and politicians, they would be next to impossible to dislodge, and they have the power to scotch any serious attempts at reform.



City on a Hill does not confine itself to curricular matters alone, but also delves into campus politics. Thus, although CCNY has a highly—not to say gloriously—diverse student body, Traub explodes the myth that it is a seething racial cauldron. In all the many months he spent on campus he found little racial activism and less animosity. Like students elsewhere, most City College students just want to get on with their careers and graduate.

On the other hand, the professors—or at least some of them—are worse in this respect than the students. Traub pulls no punches in portraying Leonard Jeffries, chairman of City College’s black-studies department, as a charismatic street thug whose lack of scholarly credentials, incompetent classroom routines, and abuse of students should have led to his ouster long ago. Courageously, Traub attended some of Jeffries’s classes, where he took menacing guff for his pains.

Ever fair-minded, Traub tries to balance CCNYs long toleration of Jeffries by noting its allegedly similar toleration of Michael Levin, a philosophy professor whose views on the relationship between race and intelligence have stirred a good deal of controversy. But the parallel Traub draws is false. City College in fact exhibited little tolerance toward Levin; it did its best to get rid of him. And unlike Jeffries, who has no scholarly writings to his credit, Levin is a competent philosopher whose writings command attention in the profession. Levin also kept his controversial views off-campus and out of the classroom, where they remained until Dean Paul Sherwin, whom Traub praises extravagantly, made them widely known and invited Levin’s students to drop his courses. All this is in the record of Levin’s successful suit against CUNY



Despite this book’s shortcomings, Traub tells City College’s baneful story extremely well. To his credit, moreover, he does draw many if not all the inferences to which his observations compel him, even if he draws them molto sotto voce. Lively, well-written, even exciting to read, City on a Hill, with its graphic, accurate, and sympathetic description of just what goes on in and out of classes at City College, is better than a hundred jeremiads. Whatever its flaws, and perhaps in spite of Traub’s own intentions, it reveals an educational nightmare from which we will not soon awake.


1 See Peter Shaw's review of Academic Turmoil by Theodore L. Gross in COMMENTARY, May 1980.

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