10 Years Later: Colleges Tackle “The College Dropout”
We all know how Kanye feels about higher education, but as his landmark album, The College Dropout, turns 10, we consider how professors who teach it convey those messages.
For many of us, The College Dropout came during a pivotal point in our lives – when we were applying to colleges. SATs, ACTs, early admission – all of the monotonous exams that are supposedly key to success occupied the vast majority of our adolescent consciousness. In the midst of the pencil sharpening and bubble filling here comes Kanye. An unfamiliar voice delivering an unorthodox message on an album called The College Dropout – a very tendentious title in hindsight. Kanye challenged how we viewed going off to school. Is this something I really want to do for the next four years? What the fuck am I going to do with an English degree? Kanye was able to channel those insecurities in a way that no one had done before. He was able to speak about college from a different viewpoint than your college advisor. But what is college’s view on Kanye?
With the increase of hip hop focused courses in higher education, and this album’s significance in the culture, The College Dropout should factor into course curriculum, right? However, teaching an album of that title in a college classroom surely raises some issues. For insight into how higher learning handles The College Dropout we reached out to professors whose courses focus on hip hop, or hip hop culture.
Professor Anna Claire Hodge works at Florida State University and teaches a course called And Ya Don’t Stop: Writing About Hip-Hop.
Professor Andrew Hoberek works at the University of Missouri and teaches a course called Major Authors: Jay Z and Kanye West.
Professor Travis Lars Gosa works at Cornell and teaches several hip hop related courses. Most recent courses include Hip Hop: Beats, Rhymes, and Life, Hip Hop: Conflict and Controversy, and Politics of the Hip-Hop Generation, Hip Hop Culture and Youth Identity.
Mass Appeal: How has Kanye’s The College Dropout influenced your lesson plans?
Professor Hodge: Every album or artist I love influences my lesson plans, so Kanye features heavily. The first major assignment in my class is to write a Hip Hop Literacy Narrative in which the student has to explore his or her relationship with hip hop since childhood. Because my kids are 18 years old, many of their rap educations began with Kanye.
Professor Hoberek: The focus of my class is on the art of rap and the skill with which people like Jay and Kanye pursue this art. This means talking as much about form, or how an artist says things, as about content, or what an artist says. So for instance we had great discussions about the way Kanye, in “All Falls Down,” mirrors the theme of navigating different cultural registers by pronouncing the word “insecure” as “insecurr,” or says, “I can’t even pronounce nothing, pass that Ver-say-see.”
Professor Gosa: I would say that I enter the classroom with the goal to debunk the overall thesis of the album: that the value of education should be measured by the immediate economic returns to a degree. Going to college to become rich is a horrible idea, life doesn’t work that way, and more importantly, education for black Americans has never been solely about economic uplift.
Mass Appeal: Does teaching The College Dropout in a college setting contradict the album’s message?
Professor Hodge: Absolutely not! My students often discuss the idea of persona within hip hop, and they describe that music, for a moment, allows them to escape themselves and revel in caricature; a personality, body, attitude that might not necessarily be their everyday experience. I think The College Dropout offers them an opportunity to do that.
Professor Hoberek: My students enjoy “All Falls Down,” even though they’re all in college and it has lines like, “She has no idea what she’s doing in college. That major that she majored in don’t make no money.” Besides the fact that it’s just a great song, it has appeal beyond the specific question of whether one goes to college or not. Kanye’s genius, from the beginning of his career, was rejecting gangsta hardness for what Adam Bradley calls, in his great Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop, a “common man” persona: “We all self-conscious,” as Kanye says, “I’m just the first to admit it.” Anyone can identify with this, especially college students who are on the cusp of becoming full adults—and maybe even more at a time when the relationship between a degree and economic advancement isn’t as straightforward as it once was.
Professor Gosa: I’m a sociologist and Black studies professor, and I tend to be hyper-aware of the pros and cons of using any form of hip hop in the classroom. On the one hand, hip hop provides an important critique and alternative language set to use for learning and teaching in the classroom. On the other hand, Kanye’s messages about education come with lots of other ideas about social class, race, and gender. So, while he might provide a useful critique of racist teachers who think all black boys belong on the short bus, he also rhymes about threesomes with co-eds and oral sex. The key for using hip hop in the classroom is to use albums as the starting points for serious discussions, and not the end point.
Mass Appeal: How does the album inform students about higher education?
Professor Hodge: It offered a alternative to the “high school should always lead to college” paradigm, and proved that an intelligent, driven, talented person could find fulfillment without a degree. Some minds and personalities aren’t built for academic institutions. Kanye gave it a shot, then bounded into an entirely different existence.
Professor Gosa: Do students take anything Kanye says seriously? Occassionally, that might be the case, but students are intelligent and have their own ideas about the world. I would say that Kanye’s narrative reflects what many middle-class black students are experiencing at college: they are expected to go to college because of their parents, but don’t necessarily know why they are here and what they are really interested in.
Mass Appeal: What specific songs deal with education in America and how do you use them in class?
Professor Hodge: “Spaceship” is a clear winner. Rather than dealing directly with education, it seems to tackle the aftermath: working a dead-end job with an overbearing manager, making beats in his off time. I’d use this song to illustrate that struggle or lack thereof but there isn’t a binary system, and everyone, in a sense, is grinding for something. Kanye didn’t have the quintessential “hood” experience that we’ve come to expect from rappers, but he was frustrated nonetheless by the prescribed “high school, college, unfulfilling job, marriage, kids” timeline that was laid out for him. I can see the same frustrations in my own students, and I think they appreciate hearing that someone as lauded as Kanye could have been selling khakis at the Gap before his big break.
Professor Gosa: Every track is teachable. “We Don’t Care” is obvious, as it addresses how educational institutions and society expect black, inner-city youths to fail. It’s a major ‘fuck you’ to racist teachers and schools. “All Falls Down” might be used to talk about the female experience of schooling, though there are some problematic punchlines on that track. The sketches are ridiculous, but I could imagine comparing the story of Lil Jimmy to what we know about the connection between college degrees and lifetime earnings.
Mass Appeal: Are there any benefits of not going to college? If so, what are they?
Professor Hodge: I think opting out of the classic university experience means one has to grow up and become more independent more quickly than their peers. Without professors and administrators checking up on a young person, I think their experience would be patently different. Without the “waiting room” of college, jobs and the “big” questions present themselves immediately. That provides opportunities for growth and self-exploration. It might also force a young person to leap into achieving a life goal rather than kicking it for four years. On the other hand, that same kid could easily just live in his parents’ basement and smoke weed. So much depends on work ethic, energy, the ability to accept rejection, and people skills.
Professor Hoberek: That’s a great question, but a really complicated one. On the one hand, as the President himself said the other day in a speech at a General Electric factory in Wisconsin, college may not be the most direct path to economic advancement for everyone. On the other hand, we could do more as a society to ensure that college, and other educational options, are available for anyone who wants or needs them. Kanye may have dropped out of college, but he clearly never stopped learning new things – something he’s had the resources to do.
Mass Appeal: What does the term “college dropout” mean to you?
Professor Hodge: To me, the phrase signals a paradigm shift. Young people aren’t accepting what they’ve been told to expect from life, and are beginning to see that there are other options. “College dropout” doesn’t mean abruptly leaving school and hoping for the best. It’s a person who eschews the norm to ensure his/her own success, someone who has both the innate talent and willingness to make mistakes in order to achieve some sort of solid standing, whether it’s in the arts or business. It takes more, a lot more, than dreaming to make dreams come true. Any person who understands that has taken the first step.
Professor Hoberek: In Kanye’s case, it means rejecting a certain path and striking out on one’s own. But as an educator, I don’t think we can take someone like Kanye as typical. People should be able to choose not to go to college, or not to stay in college, if it’s not right for them.
Professor Gosa: First thing that comes to mind is opportunity lost. It’s so important to finish, the credential, that piece of paper, is key for getting a regular job in society. Also, the student who leave represent a huge loss to the college and student body.
Mass Appeal: Where does The College Dropout stand in all of Kanye’s work?
Professor Hodge: I was 18, the same age my students are, when The College Dropout came into my life. Everyone around me: the hippies, the frat bros, the uncategorizables, were listening to it. It was startling, the effect it had on my campus. This album marked a change in what consumers were going to accept from hip hop. Kanye touches on everything from religion (the inimitable “Jesus Walks”) disappointing his mother (“Graduation Day”) getting one’s body right (“The New Workout Plan”), to seduction (“Slow Jamz”). This deviation from what consumers were expecting from rap created a ripple effect that we’re still seeing. Without Kanye, how could we have the new era of hip hop masculinity that includes J. Cole and Drake?
His fearless tackling of the everyday drew fans in. He made them feel like their lives were worth talking about, whether it was the frustrations of college, jobs, materialism, or even their love lives, fans could relate. That was an invaluable deviation. Because of The College Dropout we have the avant-garde masterpiece My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Because of Kanye’s pink polos and sweater vests, we now have his leather kilt or haute couture chain mail masks. To listen to this album is to hear the beginnings of a cultural force that no one has stopped talking about since its release.
Professor Hoberek: The College Dropout proves Kanye was a genius right out of the gate. It isn’t his masterpiece, that’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, at least so far, and it doesn’t push the boundaries of rap like Yeezus does, but songs like “All Falls Down” and “Jesus Walks” are as great as he, or anyone else, has made in the 21st century.
Professor Gosa: If we count six Kanye albums, and ignore the collabs with R. Kelly and Jay-Z, then The College Dropout represents the perfect mix of lyricism, storytelling, humor, and soulbeats that we’ve gotten so far from Kanye West. It’s a classic, perhaps top five of all-time. The samples alone are worth an entire music course, but listening 10 years later, I’m taken by the apparent honesty and self-reflectiveness of the album. I miss this Kanye West—quarky, funny, smart, and not too much of a narcissistic asshole. On The College Dropout, he still wants people to love him.