Back in the mid-1990s, Wall Street Journal reporter Ron Suskind chronicled the struggles of a poor, black honor student named Cedric Jennings as the latter aspired to get out of an inner-city high school and into a top-notch university. Suskind’s pieces garnered him a Pulitzer Prize and led to a book-length treatment of his subject, A Hope in the Unseen: An American Odyssey from the Inner City to the Ivy League (Broadway Books, 1998, 372 pages).
Cedric, a junior at Washington DC’s Frank W. Ballou Senior High School, has to suffer the slings and arrows of a student body that largely takes a dim view of academic achievement. Part of a small group of accelerated science and math students, he dreams of being accepted into MIT’s Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science (MITES) program, offered the summer before his senior year. Anywhere from one-third to one-half of those successfully completing the program go on to matriculate at MIT, and Cedric has his heart set on being one of them and majoring in mathematics.
The young man who wanted to major in mathematics at MIT and make mathematics a career instead bailed out of mathematics altogether with just a minor at Brown. Why?
Although he makes it into the MITES program, he quickly finds himself outclassed: most of the black students are middle-class, hailing from academically superior suburban high schools and having much higher SATs. Decidedly at a disadvantage, he nonetheless manages to complete the program. But during a meeting with academic advisor Leon Trilling, he is told that his chances of getting into MIT aren’t that good. Particularly telling are his SAT scores, 380 verbal and 530 math, for a combined total of 910 out of a possible 1600. Professor Trilling suggests that he apply instead to the University of Maryland and Howard University, even giving him the names of particular professors to contact. The distraught Cedric will have none of it though, even going so far as to accuse Trilling of being a racist.
If he can’t get into MIT, he’ll prove the critics wrong by getting into an Ivy League school. Pulling his SATs up to 960 from 910, he applies to Brown University because it has an impressive applied mathematics department. He’s accepted, and Suskind chronicles the trials and tribulations of his freshman year. The book came out during Cedric’s junior year, Suskind commenting in the Epilogue, “His major, meanwhile, is in applied math, a concentration that deals with the tangible applications of theorems, the type of high-utility area with which he has always been most comfortable” (364).
Thus concludes the summary of the book published 17 years ago. As the years went by, I wondered how Cedric had fared during the remainder of his Brown experience and after graduation. Every now and then I came across some tidbit of information. Although I was expecting to find him putting his major in applied mathematics to work in that field, I discovered instead that he had gone back to school, earning a master’s in education at Harvard and a master’s in social work at the University of Michigan; he had been involved in social work and then had gone on to become a director of government youth programs. Nothing particularly unusual about that, though; lots of folks get graduate degrees in fields other than their undergraduate major and end up veering off onto other career paths.
But I discovered that a revised and updated edition of A Hope in the Unseen had come out back in 2005, and I was surprised to come across this statement in the Afterword describing Cedric’s graduation from Brown: “Then Cedric proceeded, arm in arm with Zayd, Nicole, and a many-hued host of others, to receive his Bachelor of Arts degree, with a major in education, a minor in applied math, and a 3.3 grade point average” (377). Suskind casually lets slip that Cedric didn’t end up with a major in applied mathematics after all! That he only minored in that field means he didn’t have to take the final upper-level courses required for a major.
Suskind had also made Leon Trilling out to be some kind of Prince of Darkness thwarting the Journey of the Hero, and this is a most ungenerous characterization.
Although the book does have Cedric contemplating a second major in education along with his original major in applied mathematics, doubling up in that way just didn’t make much sense. As with his MITES experience, he found himself outclassed at Brown, having to compete with students from academically superior suburban schools, students with SATs hundreds of points higher than his own. He had trouble with some of his freshman courses, even his specialty, having to drop a course in discrete mathematics. Would it not have been more prudent, under those circumstances, simply to focus on one’s original major and on required courses without having to worry about the additional academic load of a new, second major? And if one did take on a second major and then had to scale back on the total number of courses taken, would it not have made more sense to scale back on the second major, getting a minor in that field instead, while going on with the original major? Something just wasn’t adding up here.
Although Brown had been unaware that Cedric was the subject of a series of articles in the Wall Street Journal when he was admitted under Brown’s affirmative action program, the college most certainly would have found out in short order, and it would have been in its best interest that this particular admit not get in over his head. Education is a much “safer” major than applied mathematics, and it is a popular major with many African Americans.
Cedric believed that getting into a top-notch university was a reward of sorts for all that he had to put up with through high school: “I could never dream about, like going to UDC or Howard, or Maryland or wherever . . . It just wouldn’t be worth what I’ve been through” (49). But it appears he may have had to strike a bargain in order to achieve that end. The young man who wanted to major in mathematics at MIT and make mathematics a career instead bailed out of mathematics altogether with just a minor. Why was the motivation behind such a tantalizing shift of academic focus not duly chronicled by Suskind in the Afterword to the revised and updated edition? He offers no explanation whatsoever for Cedric’s stopping short of a full major in applied mathematics, furtively sneaking the fact by as if hoping the reader wouldn’t notice.
Had Cedric gone to Maryland (or Howard) instead, would he have gone on to realize his STEM aspirations?
Suskind had also made Leon Trilling out to be some kind of Prince of Darkness thwarting the Journey of the Hero, and this is a most ungenerous characterization. In 1995, the mean math SAT score of entering freshmen at MIT was 756 out of a possible 800; Cedric’s score was 530. Dr. Trilling was absolutely correct to wonder whether Cedric was a good fit for MIT at the time. Trilling’s advice to Cedric to apply to the University of Maryland and Howard University was based on the fact that those schools were involved in a project with MIT called the Engineering Coalition of Schools for Excellence in Education and Leadership (ECSEL), a program aimed at underrepresented minorities in the field of engineering. Had Cedric been accepted by either of those schools and majored in engineering, he could have had another shot at MIT as a transfer student if his grades had been good enough and if he had been able to boost his SATs. Trilling was actually trying to keep Cedric’s STEM (science-technology-engineering-math) aspirations alive. Even if Cedric still fell short of getting into MIT, he could have gone on to get an engineering degree from Maryland or Howard and contribute to a STEM field in which blacks are woefully underrepresented relative to such fields as education and social work.
During the drafting of this review, I discussed its content with a friend who urged me to check out chapter three of Malcolm Gladwell’s most recent book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants (Allen Lane, 2013, 305 pages). That chapter was titled, “If I’d gone to the University of Maryland, I’d still be in science.” Caroline Sacks — a pseudonym — is a straight-A “science girl” all the way up through high school in Washington, DC. Applying to Brown University as first choice, with the University of Maryland as her backup choice, she’s accepted by both and of course chooses Brown. But she has to drop freshman chemistry at Brown and take it over again as a sophomore. Then she has trouble with organic chemistry, finally having to leave her STEM track altogether and switch to another major. She achieves an Ivy League degree from Brown, but at the expense of her passion for science. Had she gone to Maryland instead, she believes, she’d still be in science. Had Cedric gone to Maryland (or Howard) instead, would he have gone on to realize his STEM aspirations?
A Hope in the Unseen has become widely assigned classroom reading, even spawning a number of accompanying classroom study guides. Although it is indeed an inspiring story, it’s simply not all that it’s cracked up to be. Legions of readers have assumed as a matter of course that Cedric proved the naysayers wrong by earning a major in applied mathematics at Brown when his dream of earning a major in mathematics at MIT was derailed by his low SATs. In reality, Cedric had to leave applied mathematics at Brown — and had he instead been admitted to MIT and attempted a major in mathematics there, he probably would have had to leave much earlier, perhaps even having to forgo the consolation prize of a minor.
Although many consider Cedric’s experience at Brown an affirmative action success story, his experience actually highlights the problems inherent in affirmative action policies that lower academic standards for minorities.