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A Hard Schooling | The Nation

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A Hard Schooling

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The following is excerpted from columnist Jimmy Breslin's June 7 address to graduates of the City University of New York.

About the Author

Jimmy Breslin
Jimmy Breslin is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist with Newsday.

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.

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