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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

On today's Roundtable, a Massachusetts high school reeling from a student suicide won't publish the honor roll anymore and two more congregations split with the Episcopal Church over elevating a gay priest.

Joining us today from New York is Michael Meyers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition. And Laura Washington, Chicago Sun-Times columnist is in Chicago. We've also got Glenn Loury, professor of the social sciences and professor of economics at Brown University. He's in Providence, Rhode Island.

Thanks for being with us. And let's talk about the high school honor roll. I'm sure that all of you were lovely overachievers who would have always made the honor roll. But after a student suicide, a high school in Massachusetts is no longer going to publish the honor roll's student names in a local newspaper.

The principal of Needham High School said he wants to reduce student stress level in quote, “this high expectations, high achievement culture.” But at least one parent doesn't believe the change is going to do much good.

Unidentified Woman: I know the principal is really committed to trying to reduce the stress. I'm not exactly sure that, you know, not publishing honor roll students can really accomplish that.

CHIDEYA: Glenn, you are a professor. Are you responsible for the mental health of your students if you grade them badly? Or what is the responsibility, you know, obviously, this is high school and not college, what should the school have done?

Professor GLENN LOURY (Social Science and Economics, Brown University): Yeah. It's a tragic thing. These kids are under tremendous stress. I've got a son who is applying to college right now. These kids are under tremendous - their parents are under tremendous stress. It's a social status issue. An explanation has to be made in the community that I live in if your kid doesn't get into Harvard or Yale or some such place. And it's really out of hand.

You know, it - there's a serious dilemma here because compared to the evaluation, isn't it a useful instrument, right? I mean if you want to motivate, if you want to discriminate, and this is what this is about, somebody's going to be on the honor roll, somebody's going to be on the dean's list, somebody's going to be valedictorian. Someone's going to get into MIT, et cetera, et cetera, and someone is not.

And as your previous segment suggested, you know, we're in a global context. This is a competitive environment. You know, these Asian kids are under tremendous stress. There are cultural differences. So, you know, I don't know what to do. In the wake and aftermath of a suicide, that this school might have suspended the honor roll is probably a humane and decent response but the underlying problem is a very serious one.

CHIDEYA: Laura, do you think this is just giving in, or is this a smart decision to save lives?

Ms. LAURA WASHINGTON (Columnist, Chicago Sun-Times): Well, I don't think that the school think they're giving in. I think they are trying to do something to sort of level the playing field and deal with some of the inequities that Glenn points out. I just don't think it's going to be - it's, you know, it's a drop in the ocean. It's not going to be very effective.

You mentioned, Farai, you know, all of us were honor students, well I don't know about that but, you know, I think that in my community, growing up on South Side Chicago, it was very important to recognize and celebrate achievement on all kinds of levels. And one way that happened was in the newspaper. And one of the ways I remember first coming into contact with community newspapers was looking for those lists and those names.

And if that gets young people, you know, motivated if only so that they can see their name in the newspaper, if that gets young people, you know, reading the newspaper I think that that's a positive impact. And I don't think that taking that honor roll list out of a newspaper, whatever community it is, is going to change the system.

The system that - what Glenn calls a comparative evaluation system where everything is based on achievement, where you can't get into the Harvards, where you can't even graduate from high school unless you get a certain number. We've got to really completely dismantle that system, and this is a just a Band-Aid.

CHIDEYA: Michael, what does this say about our ability not just to ask kids to achieve but also to expect that all kids can achieve at a high level. It's sort of like that, you know, idea of Lake Woebegone, where all the kids were above average?

Mr. MICHAEL MEYERS (Executive Director, New York Civil Rights Coalition): This says that the people who are in charge of this particular school are being ridiculous. This is dilettantism. It's anti-intellectual. It is ridiculous. Why not abolish grades if people were concerned about the self-esteem of students? You know.

CHIDEYA: Some schools have, actually.

Mr. MEYERS: Yeah. Some schools have. You know, I offer no apologies or regrets for being - having been an honor student. And I think the people ought to be honor students, and people ought to be able to compete and to say, yes, I did succeed. What is wrong with that? There can't be anything wrong with that.

Can you ever imagine newspapers, for example, not publishing achievements of sports teams? People compete in sports and they excel and they want to be celebrated and they want to be recognized for their achievement. What's wrong with being recognized as being an intellectual giant? What newspaper (unintelligible) not to print the Spelling Bee champions? This, you know, life of the competition. It's about successes and failures, and learning from both failures and successes. Now, I…

CHIDEYA: Well, let me ask, Glenn.

Mr. MEYERS: I must…

CHIDEYA: Go ahead.

Mr. MEYERS: I just want to say one more thing. Suicide is a complex subject and we cannot blame a suicide on either the grades or the lack of grades. It's a very complex subject. And it is - I think it is shortsighted. It is silly, it is ridiculous, it is dumb to abolish either grades or to abolish the honor roll because of a person's suicide. This is the dumbing of America. We're turning out democracy into an idiocracy.

CHIDEYA: Well, that's strong language. Glenn, what about parents? You know, you have a child who is preparing for college, what you do say? Do you say you have to bring home the best grades? You have to bring home the best grades you can bring home. I will love you no matter what, but you better get those grades.

Prof. LOURY: Exactly.

CHIDEYA: I mean, what do you want…

Prof. LOURY: I think you say the latter. I mean, come on, now we're talking about parenting. I'm not going to claim to be an expert. But I think you tell your kid you love the kid no matter what, OK. You also tell your kid that life is tough. I mean what Michael Meyers was just saying is true. I don't disagree with what he was saying. I mean life is tough, it's a competition, you know?

So there's a management problem here. These are powerful emotions. This is, you know, this is a very delicate thing. What I tell my kid is do your darned best. The failure will be that you didn't try. OK? I know what you are capable of. OK? If he comes with C's, he's capable of B's and A's. I know that. He knows that. Right? He's not doing his best, so that's the issue.

The issue is he being responsible and is he, you know, taking this tremendous opportunity that I would say God has given him and making the best of it. So that comes down to really a kind of spiritual thing and the kind of sense of the kid's identity. I think that's what parenting is about, but then I'm not an expert on parenting.

Ms. WASHINGTON: Well, Farai, I would have jumped in and say I'm certainly not either, I don't have any children. But I think that, you know, obviously, parenting is the most important ingredient here. But I think I would go back to what Michael said earlier about sports scores. And look at these newspapers who we're concerned about whether or not a little blurb, a little list of honor roll students gets into a newspaper. Well, that's not what the newspapers and that's not what society, that's not where our system is valuing.

They are valuing things like sports scores. They are valuing entertainment and celebrity. And that's the stuff that the kids are really gravitating to more than being on the honor roll, and that's a really big problem that we haven't really addressed.

CHIDEYA: All right. Well, we're going to turn away from this right now. But for anybody who's just tuning in, we've been talking with Laura Washington, Chicago Sun-Times columnist; Glenn Loury, professor of the social sciences and professor of economics at Brown University; and Michael Meyers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition.

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

And we're going to keep proceeding with this fine NPR program. Talking about something else at the educational level, there was a really tense criminal case. Two members of a college fraternity were found guilty of felony hazing yesterday.

Two members of the Kappa Alpha Psi chapter at Florida A&M University were convicted by a jury that deliberated for six hours. They whacked a pledge with a wooden cane so hard he passed out from the pain, had to have a huge hematoma removed from his backside. It's the first test of a new state hazing law, and the jury did not convict three other fraternity brothers.

There's been a lot of conversation in African-American fraternity and sorority circles with some people sending out e-mails saying, you know what? This is just the way it is. You know, this wasn't hazing. This was just part of the ritual.

Michael, what do you make of this case?

Mr. MEYERS: It was hazing. This was felony assault. Period. I'm tried of people saying because I'm not a member or haven't been a member of a fraternity, I don't know anything about assault. This is assault.

This is a guy who was a pledge and he was struck, caned as you say, more than 90 times. It required 25 stitches. His eardrums were injured. And even then, he didn't quote/unquote “snitch.” Even then, he didn't tell. Even then, he got in a car and drove miles and miles and miles to go to his parents and to try to get help for his medical condition. And it was his father who, as I understand, a former frat himself, who snitched.

This is a terrible situation that must be addressed and I am glad that Florida, as other states, now have anti-hazing laws that make such assaults a felony. And they were convicted and now they must be punished.

CHIDEYA: Laura, we're talking about a historically black college and a historically black fraternity. Is there - is this going to shake things up in terms of codes of loyalty that exist, you know, obviously not just on black schools' campuses but in any kind of tight-knit community?

Ms. WASHINGTON: Well, I think that you - the first point, Farai, is well put in that is this is not just a black problem. But this is a problem of the Greek system nationally on every college campus (unintelligible). The Greek system is barbaric.

There are many positive assets to join in a fraternity or a sorority, you know, the community building, the community service, emphasis where it happens. But I think this is an example of showing that the good really outweighs the bad.

Since when does beating the hell out of somebody encourage loyalty, encourage a positive-value system? I think that these kinds of activities I think bring out the worst in young people's insecurities. They encourage that pack behavior. They encourage conformity. Why do we want our young people to think that they have to conform and submit to violence in order to achieve?

In many ways, I think it erodes self-esteem, these - many of these sororities and fraternities are classist and racist. The reason why African-American fraternities and sororities exist is because the white Greek system has not been very welcoming, but the same kinds of activities happen in those. I think that the system should really be eliminated.

CHIDEYA: Glenn, I'm thinking of, what was that Spike Lee movie with the…

Prof. LOURY: Oh, yeah.

CHIDEYA: …fraternities and sororities. I'm blanking on the name - “School Daze.”

Prof. LOURY: Let me think of that (unintelligible), yeah, “School Daze,” D-A-Z-E.

CHIDEYA: D-A-Z-E with…

Prof. LOURY: Well, you know, this, I mean we're getting right down to, you know, the nitty-gritty here, as they would say, because it is an issue about this tradition within African-American Society, of this fraternal and sororal organizations. I'm talking about the Alphas. I'm talking about the Kappas. I'm talking about the Deltas and the Q's and the AKA's, etc.

Mr. MEYERS: Talk about them.

Prof. LOURY: And we all know coming up in the African-American community the kind of strength of these organizations stretching back over generations and the - and everything that my colleagues have said here is correct. It's barbaric. This hazing thing is just barbaric. I mean just straight out, flat out. It's intolerable, not to be tolerated.

And what Laura had to say about the fact that the Greek system as such is really deeply questionable I agree with completely at institutions of higher education. This is all about exclusivity, about bond, about brotherhood. I mean not only was it racist in the larger Greek system but they had skin-tone prejudices in these African-American fraternities that was outrageous.

I mean it was all about somebody being better than somebody else or I'm in and you're out, or we got this secret society. We got our secret handshake. We got our secret tattoos. It's corrupt. It's barbaric, and we ought to be rid of it. That should just be directly said.

Now I say that knowing that there are hundreds of thousands of listeners who are going to be offended. And I really don't mean any offense. But I mean what kind of institutions are we going to have and what are we about, quote, “as a people,” close quote, is a kind of question that I wish my African-American detractors would address themselves to when, you know, we're talking about this kind of story.

CHIDEYA: Well I can be sure this will show up in our letters. I want to squeeze one more topic in, if that is possible. Episcopal Church, two Virginia Churches are reacting to a decision three years ago to consecrate gay bishop. And they've now aligned with the Anglican Archbishop of Nigeria. His name is Peter Akinola. He opposes homosexuality, told the BBC of the split - once there's a crack in the wall, you are likely to have all sorts creeping in.

Now the acceptance of gays in the church has splintered off several congregations. But these are huge congregations and I suspect not majority black or not majority African immigrants in America - it's a really fascinating twist on religious affiliation.

Laura, what do you see happening here?

Ms. WASHINGTON: Well, the twist you're talking about is that a denomination or a congregation in Virginia would want to ally itself with a Nigerian denomination. This - there's not a whole lot of cultural opportunity or cultural commonality in those two congregations. But they'd rather go with black folks than go with gay folks is really what it comes down to.

The argument they make is that the scripture says that being gay is wrong. The bishop in Nigeria has been so adamantly against gays. He has been willing to support gays going to prison if they engage in sexual activity. But the real bottom line here is money. There's now a big fight within this denomination about who gets the bucks. If these two particular denominations in Virginia, for example, move off and affiliate with another community in Africa, who gets the $25 million or so in property in land that those churches own?

And so it really does, with all things church, always does come down to bucks.

CHIDEYA: Glenn.

Prof. LOURY: Well, you know, modernity encroaches is what a professor would say. In other words, you know, the wheel turns. I mean in other words, human societies are changing our practices with respect to sexuality. That's just a fact. And in the 21st century, gays are going to be equal people in civil standing in modern societies. That's going to happen. Now I think it should happen.

Now a communitarian church way of life, the way we've always done it, these are conservative institutions and they're going to lag behind the change in modernity. And we're seeing this little schism within the Episcopalians and the irony of an African bishop serving as a missionary to an American flock, which is in effect what he's doing. We're seeing that, but that's just kind of one instance of this larger fault line, this larger shift that I'm talking about.

I think we need to keep our eye on the ball here, and the key issue is the distinction between civil and communitarian arenas where things might happen. I'm talking about the law.

Now people should be able to marry. They should have equal rights and standing. These are constitutional issues of individual freedom. What a church decides to do when they read their special book and then come to some communal understanding about what it means, in a way, that's their business. And if these people want to go their own way, you know, I would say, with some irony, God love them.

CHIDEYA: OK, Michael Meyers.

Mr. MEYERS: This is not just - this is not so far away from the other topic about private association in terms of fraternities and sororities. This is a religious association. And they're in a church fight - an old, good old fashioned church fight.

You know, as Glenn might say, God bless them. But, you know, there are people in the church, in their Anglican church, who oppose the woman being the presiding bishop in the United States. There are lots of people in the church who oppose the consecration of a homosexual as bishop in New Hampshire, Gene Robinson.

And there are lots of people who oppose homosexuality. That's their, quote/unquote, I guess, “right to believe.” But they are fighting against modernity. They're fighting against equality. They're on the wrong side of history. And these folks, you know, ought to be ashamed of themselves.

Prof. LOURY: Amen.

CHIDEYA: All right. We're going to leave it there. Michael Meyers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition; Laura Washington, Chicago Sun-Times columnist; and Glenn Loury, professor of the social sciences and professor of economics at Brown University. Thank you all so much.

Mr. MEYERS: Thank you, Farai.

Ms. WASHINGTON: Thank you, Farai.

Prof. LOURY: Thank you, Farai.

CHIDEYA: As always, if you'd like to comment on any of these topics, you can call us at 202-408-3330. That's 202-408-3330, or e-mail us by logging on to NPR.org and click on Contact Us. And please be sure to tell us where you're writing from and how to pronounce you name.

Next of NEWS & NOTES, Chef G. Garvin get things cooking in his first book, and African bass drum takes center stage in our lower frequency series.

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