Metro

Jeneé Osterheldt | Commentary

College degrees, freedom papers, and the admissions scam we all fall for

Harvard historian Jonathan Square curated the exhibit “Slavery in the Hands of Harvard.” His own 2019 work, “Freedom Papers?”, is shown at right.
Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff
Harvard historian Jonathan Square curated the exhibit “Slavery in the Hands of Harvard.” His own 2019 work, “Freedom Papers?”, is shown at right.

A bachelor’s degree from Cornell.

A master’s from the University of Texas at Austin.

A PhD from New York University.

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Jonathan M. Square, a historian, researcher, and lecturer at Harvard University, has spent half his life in prestigious academic institutions.

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But what does that mean in a country where the wealthy buy college admission and test scores like they buy Birkin bags and beachfront properties? What does that mean in a country where a man as educated and successful as Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates can be arrested for entering his home while black?

Square, 36, pondered the complexities and decided to paint over all three of his degrees.

“Freedom Papers?” is a three-piece work that finds his diplomas splattered in red and green ink, stenciled with symbols of blackness: a silhouette of Africa over his bachelor’s, the words “I Am A Man,” an ode to the 1968 Memphis sanitation strike over his master’s, and freedom hands over the PhD.

“I am the first person to admit I have used my education to define me and as a form of upward mobility,” Square says. “But at the same time, that only gets you so far. And to some people in some places, you’re still just a black man.”

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The piece is a part of a bigger show he curated, “Slavery in the Hands of Harvard,” on display at the school’s Center for Government and International Studies through Monday.

Square describes his piece as an examination of the value we place on these pieces of paper, and the fact that there is no degree that allows you to escape systemic oppression. Though he didn’t know of the college admissions scandal when he made his art, Square’s always known of the inequities.

“I had worked so hard to get into Cornell and into elite institutions, and you get there and it isn’t a meritocracy,” he says. “A lot of people were coached through the process in a way that I wasn’t. They had admission coaches and private schools and access to really good public schools.”

“You look at the history of these institutions and they weren’t created to accommodate people who look like me. You have to carve out space, find your niche, and be creative about it. And there are people who, in a lot of ways, have the luck of being in the right family, and it raises a lot of ethical questions.”

We had questions about privilege in education before big building donations and legacy admissions. We had questions about academic access before 33 parents allegedly paid anywhere from $100,000 to $6.5 million to fake it until their kids made it into the top schools.

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Many of the answers can be traced to supremacy sewn so deeply into our psyches and systems it washes over every aspect of life. Schools in low-income neighborhoods often get the shortest end of the funding stick. Those students are disproportionately brown and black.

A lack of resources and access help contribute to a major achievement gap. According to a report by the Massachusetts Education Equity Partnership, of the students who took the SAT in 2017, only 27 percent of black students and 31 percent of Latino students met the exam’s college-readiness benchmarks.

This is why brown and black parents use different addresses to get their kids into better schools. And for that, they get sent to jail. Like Ohio mom Kelley Williams-Bolar.

But when we are asking ourselves about the access the wealthy have when it comes to education, we also have to ask ourselves about the worth we assign to academic institutions. We need to think about the hierarchy we believe in that says an Ivy League graduate is better than any other graduate, that a degree from an elite school is what makes you somebody.

A degree is a key. For some of us, it opens big doors. For others, it’s a means just to get by. But it is not a certification of humanity or potential. Yet, it means something bigger than learning.

When I wear my Harvard hoodie or hat, people who are brown and black like me sometimes nod and smile. “Yes! Harvard! Yes!” one woman happily yelled to me in a restaurant.
White people sometimes ask if I went there — occasionally with a suspicious tone.

I was a Nieman fellow with the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. I was there for a yearlong program. I did homework and took finals. I even took a class at MIT.

And yes, the year changed my life — because of the people I met, the confidence I gained, and the ways in which I was challenged. But in that year, I did not amass new clips. I did not suddenly become a brand new me. And yet, for the first time in a 15-year career, I was getting job opportunities.

Before Harvard and Nieman appeared on my resume, nearly every callback I got as a columnist for The Kansas City Star was from someone asking me to take a position lesser than my skill set.

Part of that, I think, is the prejudice people have against noncoastal cities. Add my black womanhood and the fact that I graduated from Norfolk State University, a historically black college, and, well, folks expect you to take less.

When I wear my Norfolk State gear, which I do often, no one shouts out compliments.

People only stop me if they went to my beloved alma mater or if they went to an HBCU, too. There is a dismissal of lesser-known schools and an erasure if that small state school is black. Even when you are at the top of your field, some people will want you to sink into the shadows.

Norfolk State’s alumni mag never wrote about me when I became a columnist at a major Midwest paper at 27 or when I won a local NAACP award. But when I became a Nieman, they reached out to me for a full-page spread. Because that is the power we give Harvard.

My mama — who fudged the paperwork so I didn’t have to transfer to a lesser high school when we moved — celebrated at graduation, but didn’t brag when I got scholarship money to attend Norfolk State University. Mommy wanted me to go into the Air Force.

Years later, even as she lay dying in her hospital bed, she bragged to every nurse about her daughter who was headed to Harvard. I ate up her pride like a last meal. I stepped into the visibility as I got calls for jobs without trying. Companies I once applied to now knew my name.

But I was bitter, too. I’d been doing this work in the shadows for over a decade. The light shines on the strength of names like Harvard and Yale and Brown. We tie self-worth to institutions built and paid for by slavery, spaces we’re still fighting to get into.

We do this knowing there was never a meritocracy.

In a country built on the brutalization of black people, of Native people, of nonwhite and poor people, there was never equal access. In schools first created for the white, male, and wealthy, at companies where it took civil rights battles and affirmative action to diversify (and where inclusion remains a struggle), how could there be a system based on skill and smarts over power and privilege?

There couldn’t be. Not in a country where black men raised by millionaires in the top 1 percent are as likely to be incarcerated as white men raised in households earning about $36,000. The Equality of Opportunity Project found white boys who grow up rich will probably stay rich. Black boys who come from money are more likely to become poor than to secure their wealth.

Yet we continue to subscribe to the belief that college guarantees success and if you just work hard enough, if you are smart enough, you can escape the inequities of this country. We treat those without degrees as if it’s a sign of ignorance, as if Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg and Ta-Nehisi Coates haven’t showed us differently.

An education is important. There’s not one way to learn. Where you live and how much money you have should not dictate your access to quality learning or how far you can go in life. We walk across those stages and think we’ve won.

That paper is a short-lived victory for most. It doesn’t even guarantee basic human decency.

I don’t wear my Harvard gear to flex. I wear it to disrupt the narrative that says Harvard means wealth and polish and access. I wear it as a reminder that someone like me, whom Harvard professor and scientist Louis Agassiz would have considered an aberration, was there.

But my Norfolk State apparel? It’s hard to find beyond the campus bookstore and a select bunch of brands dedicated to HBCU gear. That in itself reflects inequity. So I wear green and gold and yell “Behold” as a deliberate choice to hold space for the schools society tries to erase. To pay homage to the place that made me who I am. And it had nothing to do with the degree I earned, a piece of paper buried in a trunk somewhere.

Norfolk State taught me to love myself and love the people. There’s no major for that, but the lesson helps you navigate systems that allow the wealthy to order up access to an elite university like Sunday night dinner while the rest of us have been falsely told a degree is our way out of poverty and racism.

For us, there is always a price to be paid. It takes a toll when companies and institutions tokenize diversity. There’s a cost to trying to succeed that can’t be settled in dollars and hardly makes sense.

These degrees were never freedom papers. This system has never been free.

Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at jenee.osterheldt@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @sincerelyjenee.