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'Welcome To Braggsville' Isn't Quite 'Invisible Man,' But It's Close

T. Geronimo Johnson's latest follows four Berkeley students who take an American history class that leads to disaster. It's an ambitious book about race that wants to say something big about America.

06:14

Other segments from the episode on March 3, 2015

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 3, 2015: Interview with Kevin Carey; Review of T. Geronimo Johnson's novel "Welcome to Braggsville"; Obituary for Orrin Keepnews;

Transcript

March 3, 2015

Guests: Kevin Carey - Orrin Keepnews

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. A lot of parents soon after their child is born, start worrying about how they'll afford their child's college education. And when the child is in high school, there's the confusing, complicated, time-consuming and incredibly stressful process of applying to colleges. For those students lucky enough to get admitted into a good college, there's the college debt. Those problems might be overcome in the future with online higher education. My guest Kevin Carey envisions an online-education future in which, quote, "the idea of admission to college will become an anachronism because it will be open to everyone, and educational resources that have been scarce and expensive for centuries will be abundant and free," unquote. Carey directs the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation and is the author of the new book "The End Of College: Creating The Future Of Learning And The University Of Everywhere."

Kevin Carey, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's start with, what do you mean by the University of Everywhere?

KEVIN CAREY: Well, the University of Everywhere is the university that I think my children and future generations will attend when they go to college. And it will look very different in some ways, although not in other ways, from the colleges that I went to and that many of us have become familiar with. And this will be driven by advances in information technology. So whereas historically, you went to college in a specific place and only studied with the other people who could afford to go to that place, in the future, we're going to study with people all over the world, interconnected over global learning networks and in organizations that in some cases aren't colleges as we know them today, but rather 21st century learning organizations that take advantage of all of the new educational tools that are rapidly becoming available to offer great college experiences for much less money than people have to pay for college today.

GROSS: So basically what we're talking about is taking a lot of courses online and being connected to other students through forums and other online groups.

CAREY: Yes.

GROSS: I'll be honest with you, I really liked going to college. I actually didn't go to that many classes, I have to confess (laughter). But the college campus environment was such a fabulous place. There were concerts and poetry readings and novelists reading from their work and jazz concerts and rock concerts and avant-garde concerts and experimental film and repertory cinema and just, like, interesting student protests and all - it was such a kind of rich cultural and political environment. Don't you eliminate that, and isn't that what a lot of people go to college for in part?

CAREY: Well, a few things - it's not what most people go to college for. I think we need to distinguish between the traditional, residential, four-year, sometimes liberal arts, college experience that is really something that is mostly available to people with means. To the much larger population of American college students, most of whom are not 18 years old, they're adults. Many have families. Many have jobs. When you ask people why they're going to college, overwhelmingly, the answer is so I can get a better job because you really can't make it in today's economy without some kind of credential from a post-secondary institution. So partly this is being driven by the fact that people need to go to college in order to make their way in the world and get credentials for, frankly, not the tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars that colleges charge today.

That said, I also believe that all of those things that you mentioned are important. They were a big part of my college experience. And there's actually - I fully anticipate people will have all of those things in the future at the same time that they study in these new kinds of global learning communities. The things that you described are really important. You can get them by living in a major American city. You don't have to pay someone $60,000 a year in tuition in order to have friends and colleagues and mentors and poetry readings and concerts and political protests and all of those things, too.

GROSS: I appreciate your point about, like, the campus experience being for a specific population of college students and not for everybody, perhaps not even for the majority of people who are going to college. So let's talk more about what a truly online university would look like. As part of your research for that, you decided to take an online course. And it wasn't just like any online course; it was a pretty special one in every way. So describe the course that you took.

CAREY: The course I took was called MIT 7.00x The Secret of Life. And this is a course offered by MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, through a consortium of massive open online course providers that it runs in conjunction with Harvard University called edX. It is the basic introduction to biology class. But what it really is, is the introduction to genetics. So if you took AP Biology in high school, it's not that. It's much more advanced than that.

The course was taught by a man named Eric Lander, who was the leader of the Human Genome Project in the 1990s. He is the chair of President Obama's council of science advisers. He's an extremely smart person. He runs a multidisciplinary medical center in Cambridge, Mass., and he is the person who teaches MIT freshmen this class. And the amazing thing about 7.00x is that it was, in essentially all respects, exactly the same class that MIT freshmen take. So all of the same lectures that they saw were actually taped alive while MIT students were taking them and then broadcast over this class a couple of weeks later. Both myself and tens of thousands of other people around the world from almost every country on Earth, who were taking this class online, did the same homework, read the same textbooks, took the same exams, both the midterm and the final, and were graded on the same scale. And it was an amazing class. I learned a tremendous amount. I'm not a science major myself. I majored in political science. I wanted to take a class that I didn't have any background in. I worked incredibly hard over the course of an entire semester. And at the end of it, I managed to get an 87, a B. So probably not quite as good as some of the math and science geniuses at Cambridge, but I was able to pass the class.

GROSS: So you actually went to one of the classes and wanted to compare the online course experience to actually being in the classroom. What was the comparison like?

CAREY: Oh, it was interesting. So, yeah, I was about two-thirds of the way through the semester, and I made the trip up to Cambridge - I live in Washington, D.C. - got permission to attend the class. It took place in a beautiful, very large, very expensive science building on the MIT campus. I sat in the back row, watched the lecture. It was fine, but, honestly, I liked watching it on my computer better. And one of the big reasons is kind of simple - you can pause an online lecture. So I was - you know, I had gotten very used to putting my headphones on and taking very careful notes. And if they came to a certain point where I didn't quite understand what Professor Lander had said or I got distracted or I had to go get a cup of coffee, I could pause and go back and watch it again whereas live, I just had to sit there. And the guy next to me kind of wasn't paying attention, and he was fiddling around with his iPhone and it was sort of distracting. And so I left, deciding that taped lectures were actually better than live ones, believe it or not.

GROSS: So what did you get for taking this class? What kind of certificate or acknowledgment did you get?

CAREY: So I have a online certificate. It linked to an image that looks a lot like a diploma. It says MITx, you know, hereby certifies that Kevin Carey completed this class, the certificate of life. It has Eric Lander's signature on it. It has the seal of MIT on the bottom. And they actually gave me an authentication number that I can show anyone if they want to make sure that I'm actually the one who took this class.

GROSS: Do you think that most people would shrug their shoulders and go, oh, but it's an online class, it doesn't really count?

CAREY: Well, it depends on who the people are. I think if you believed that I took the class, and I would be prepared to show you a lot of proof that I did, I think that the fact that I passed MIT's introduction to genetics class ought to carry as much weight as someone who takes a similar class at regular university.

GROSS: So part of your book is premised on the fact that you think the brick-and-mortar university is becoming, if not obsolete, kind of antiquated and that it needs to catch up. So let's go through some of your problems with the university system, the college system as it exists now. Let's start with a meritocracy. You think that colleges and the college application process rewards a specific demographic.

CAREY: Well, you just have to look at the numbers and you see the people who attend America's most elite universities are disproportionately wealthy, disproportionately well-off, in many cases, disproportionately white. Their parents both have college degrees, which is unusual. And because college is getting more and more expensive, it's less of a meritocracy, I would argue. If only the rich can afford to go to the, quote, "good colleges," then we don't really have a system of opportunity. We have a system of replicating privilege that already exists. And I think that given wider trend of growing inequality in the United States of America is a huge, huge problem.

GROSS: You also challenge the process of applying for college and the process of how colleges accept who gets in.

CAREY: You know, the problem with college admissions is that colleges don't really know that much about students. All they kind of have to go on is an SAT score, which is a kind of a blunt instrument, standardized tests or an ACT score increasingly, a high school transcript, which is sort of hard to figure out, maybe a personal essay - who knows who wrote the personal essay? So they tend to kind of fall back on, is this person a legacy? What - did they go to a, quote, "good high school," unquote? Well, everyone figures out where the good high schools are, and people pay a lot of money either in intuition if it's a private high school or in the real estate market to buy a house near the good high school. And so again this - you know, the opportunities for students to go to particularly elite colleges, that are often the stepping stone towards the best jobs in government or business, are in many ways constricted to a narrow band of people.

GROSS: So then there's the question, you know, why are colleges so expensive? What's your take on that?

CAREY: Big-picture colleges are expensive because they can be, because they want to be and because they were built to be that way. The way my book starts is I kind of tell the history of how American colleges got to be so expensive. How we ended up in this situation where we have $1.2 trillion in outstanding student loan debt. In a way that I think is rightly sending a lot of people into a panic. I have a 4-and-a-half-year-old daughter. By the time she turns 18, public college will cost more than $100,000 in today's dollage (ph). Private colleges will cost close to $250,000.

GROSS: You're just assuming that the same pattern is going to replicate itself in terms of escalating cost?

CAREY: Yes, I am. And this is a pattern...

GROSS: ...Which it won't necessarily. I mean, you don't...

CAREY: We don't always know the future, but this has been a very consistent pattern going back for 35 years, starting in about 1980. And there's absolutely nothing in the data to suggest that it is abating at this point, unless something dramatic happens involving information technology. And in a lot of ways, the book tells the story of how I think that is going to happen.

So colleges are expensive because they occupy a very privileged position in American society. The economy has changed so much. A lot of the blue-collar jobs have disappeared such that people can really only succeed and make a decent standard of living if they have some kind of college credential. So if you're in a position where you're the only kind of organization that will sell those experiences and those credentials, then you have a lot of power over the market.

Colleges are also driven to compete with one another for status and prestige. Most colleges are nonprofit; they're not trying to maximize their revenue. What they're trying to do is maximize how important they are so the people who work there can seem important. And this really goes all the way back to the original design of the American university in the 19th century, where we essentially assembled an odd kind of hybrid institution that is built like a research university, in the sense that the faculty all have PhDs and are rewarded for their research. University faculty aren't trained in teaching. The quality of their teaching doesn't really matter in terms of their professional status in their career. But at the same time, we charge these institutions with teaching our children.

So it's a combination of market power, wanting to always have more money to compete with other colleges for status and more recently - and this should be said - state governments have been pulling money out of our state universities and prompting them to raise tuition to make up the difference.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Kevin Carey, and he's the author of the new book "The End Of College: Creating The Future Of Learning And The University Of Everywhere." And the University of Everywhere is basically online universities or universities that are partly online where students from around the world can study. And Kevin Carey directs the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation. Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Kevin Carey. His new book is called "The End Of College: Creating The future Of Learning And The University Of Everywhere." And the University of Everywhere is a reference to online universities. And Kevin Carey directs the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation. What do you see as the advantages of online universities or universities in which you can take a lot of your courses online, not necessarily all of them?

CAREY: I think several advantages. First of all, they will and should be much, much less expensive than the tens of thousands of dollars that people now are obligated to pay for college. The online class that I took from MIT - and again, this is exactly the same class that MIT teaches to its own students - cost me nothing. I signed up, and I took the class. And all of the classes offered - hundreds of classes offered by edX from Harvard, MIT, some of the best universities in the world - they're free. And the reason is because it doesn't cost them any more money to let one more person take the class. Once they've made the investment of building it and taping all of the lectures, the marginal cost of letting an additional person take it is nothing. And so this kind of marginal cost pricing, where people only pay what the marginal cost of what it costs to provide them with a service is going to drive a lot of the economics of higher education in the future.

Second, people will have a far broader access to educational materials and to other students than they have in the past. The design of the university, which goes - arguably goes back at least 800 years, if not more - the first Western university was the University of Bologna, which was founded in 1088. The design of the university is a design that comes from scarcity. So if you wanted to learn traditionally until very recently, you had to go someplace where the other students were, where the smart professors were and where the books were. And it was expensive to put all those things together in one place. Just building a huge building to have a complete library full of books costs a lot of money, so there could only ever be a relatively small number of places like that. And if you ran a place like that, you could decide who comes in the gates and who doesn't and charge people a lot of money.

We are now headed into a time of abundance when it comes to educational resources. All of the books in the world are now available on your iPad or your phone or your computer or will be soon. The same is true for all of the lectures of all of the smartest people in the world and the course notes and all kinds of other online educational resources. Once they're built, the cost of providing them to the 10,000th student or the millionth student is almost nothing. So one aspect of the University of Everywhere is that it is not going to cost nearly as much as $60,000 a year, which is what a private college will charge you today.

GROSS: So what about having face time with teachers, which maybe you get it, maybe you don't at the college that you're going to. But if you're lucky, you do have, you know, face time. And particularly in classes that have to do with, say, you know, interpretation or the arts - writing, dance, music, painting - I mean, you really need to show your work and have a teacher give you feedback on that work. And you want to interact with other students and see their work and have them rip your work apart and make you feel terrible about it and so on. You know, that's part of the experience that you probably should be getting.

CAREY: I totally agree. And the extent to which technology can faithfully translate or provide new opportunities is going to vary an awful lot depending on the subject matter. And some subjects will be more amenable to that than others.

But I think what you're getting at is completely fair. There are certain kinds of educational experiences that I think can't be replicated online - certain kinds of sciences where you need to be in a laboratory, although again, they're building some very interesting simulations of the laboratory experience. One of the classes offered by HarvardX is a poetry class taught by, you know, one of the really great poets at Harvard. Thousands and thousands of people are part of this poetry class. And one of the things that they do is actually create small subgroups of students who share their poetry with one another in an online forum. Again, these are words. We can discuss words in an online context.

So there's a lot of creativity I think yet to be unleashed and the technology is going to continue to get better and better. And we should also remember that that kind of really intensive, liberal arts experience is right now only available to a small number of people because it's so expensive. Some people will always want that. Some people will always want to pay for that, and I think that the future will continue to have that kind of liberal arts experience. But for lots and lots of people who either can't, you know, have that experience, I think will find something technologically based that is a lot closer to that than what they're allowed to have now.

GROSS: As we see more and more online courses, will we be looking at more and more out-of-work college teachers?

CAREY: I think it's a real issue. I don't think that places like MIT and Harvard are going to change very much. I mean, they're giving away their education, so that tells you something about their business model. That's not what they're kind of selling. I think that...

GROSS: I'm assuming that that model will end. A lot...

CAREY: I wouldn't assume that at all...

GROSS: Really? Because so many things that start off free on the Internet, the business model doesn't work and there ends up being some kind of, you know, pay wall. In this case, it would be tuition.

CAREY: I don't think so. I mean, Google is still free. Facebook is still free. Lots of things...

GROSS: Well, they have...

CAREY: ...That come on the Internet are...

GROSS: ...They are brilliant at ads.

CAREY: They are. And I mean, but that's great though, right? I mean, I think we - all things considered, it's pretty fantastic that anybody can access Google from pretty much anywhere that's connected to the Internet. And if there are some ads, then that's a deal everyone thinks is a pretty good deal.

So no, I think that they can continue. But when it comes to some of the lower-tier colleges and universities that aren't exclusive, that aren't as wealthy, that aren't offering an intensive, liberal arts education, that really have only grown over the last 30 or 40 years to meet the growing demand for higher education - I think that they will be the most vulnerable to competition from online education. And if they don't adapt quickly and really provide extra value compared to what people can get for free online, I think it will be hard for them to stay in business.

GROSS: My guest is Kevin Carey. His new book is called "The End Of College." After a break, we'll talk about the public school Common Core curriculum and the emphasis on testing. Also, book critic Maureen Corrigan will review a new social satire about race. And we'll remember jazz record producer Orrin Keepnews, who co-founded the Riverside and Milestone record labels, which released seminal recordings by Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, Bill Evans and Cannonball Adderley. Keepnews died Sunday. We'll listen back to a 1988 interview with him. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Kevin Carey. His new book "The End Of College" is about how online learning may transform higher education. Carey directs the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation.

So let's look at some of the issues facing education before college, starting with testing. I'm really interested in your take on the emphasis of testing for the core curriculum now. And it seems that some parents are really rebelling now. They don't want their students to take the test. A lot of teachers are angry that they have to teach to the test. So from your perch at the New America Foundation kind of looking at this new phenomenon, do you think that students are being over-tested?

CAREY: It depends. Students certainly can be over-tested, and I'm sure some of them are. The American K-12 education system is going through a big transition now where 43 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the Common Core Standards. And this is really the first time that there have been common expectations for what students need to learn in most American schools.

The Common Core Standards were created - they weren't created by the federal government. They were created by a consortium of state education leaders. And one of the real complaints about American schooling over the last 20 years has been that the standardized tests that are often used to judge schools aren't very good. They're just simple paper-and-pencil tests that don't really get to the heart of what students learn. And so in concert with the creation of the Common Core, hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested in much better tests that actually use technology in some cases so they can be adaptive, which means that as somebody takes the test, if they get harder questions right, they take even harder questions, where if they get questions wrong, then they get easier questions. And so you get a broader range of inquiry into what students have learned.

There is, I think, a lot of anxiety around the standards and the tests, partly because they're new and partly because they're, frankly, going to be quite a bit more rigorous than some of the existing tests that are in place today. But all available evidence suggests that those existing tests were not rigorous enough. One kind of startling statistic I think is that of all students who go on to college - so you're already filtering out students who don't graduate from high school and students who graduate and don't go to college - just among college students, a significant portion of those students have to take remedial classes in college, which basically means they have to take high school math and high school reading at their own expense before they're allowed to actually take college classes. So they pass the high school diploma, and yet not really, so these new tests are harder.

By and large, though, I think that the Common Core Standards are moving the country in the right direction. And really, if you actually take a look at what the standards are, they're the standards that I think any parent would want a school to achieve on behalf of their kids.

GROSS: Do you think that this emphasis on testing is contributing to fixing the problems in our education system or just measuring how much of a problem there is?

CAREY: Testing is complicated. And people - a lot of different things are done with test data. Some of them are good; some of them are not so good. I'd be the first to knowledge that I think some schools have not reacted well to a testing environment, have focused more on test preparation than actually teaching the underlying skills that the tests are supposed to assess. At the same time, we have some very, very long-standing disparities in educational achievement in this country. And those were disparities that in many ways were kind of hidden from view until we finally started asking schools to test students once a year in reading and math. Some states have been doing that since the 1990s, and all states have had to do that since 2001.

It's worth knowing also that the number of tests that students take is mostly not a function of the Common Core Standards or the federal government. Schools themselves choose for a variety of reasons to administer different kinds of tests. And so again, I think that some districts and schools are not getting the balance right, but often that those are local decisions, not national decisions.

GROSS: President Obama has a plan to have community colleges be free for two years, with the tuition funded by the government. It hasn't passed yet, but that's what he would like to see. How well do community colleges perform? There's a study that came out recently that tried to measure that.

CAREY: It depends in significant part about which part of the kind of complicated community college mission you want to talk about. Community colleges - one, they're a very important part of the United States higher education system. About 45 percent of all students who start college for the first time start at a community college. In some states it's the majority; in California, it's close to two-thirds. So we've built this system that was supposed to create access for people to start in the community college system and hopefully transfer to get a bachelor's degree.

Community colleges also are very involved in the local labor markets. They provide job training often for local employers. Because this system is open-access, anyone can enroll. And because community colleges are systematically discriminated against by state lawmakers - so in a typical state, the flagship research university with a good sports team, where upper-class families send their kids, it will get three or four times as much public money per student as the local community college, even though community colleges have a much more difficult educational job to do. So a lot of students drop out of community colleges. You know, on average, only about a third who enroll will either get a degree or transfer to a four-year college within three years. If you extend the timeframe beyond that, the numbers are somewhat better. But there is a lot of attrition in this system.

GROSS: Your thoughts about President Obama's plan?

CAREY: I think it's a very good plan. And I thought it was interesting to see how much interest it generated. I think the Obama administration plan kind of tapped into a part of the American dream that people sense is fading away. There was a time, for probably 30 or 40 years in the mid to late part of the 20th century, where there was a pretty strong social contract around higher education which said that if you worked hard and got good enough grades, the public would provide an inexpensive public education for you. There would be a community college nearby or a public university that you could attend. Either your parents could pay for it from middle-class wages or maybe you would borrow a little bit, but probably not or you could, quote, "work your way through college."

Basically, that social contract has been shattered. What I just described is no longer the reality for most American students. Seventy percent of undergraduates who graduate from college leave with debt - on average about $30,000 in debt now - so you can't work your way through school anymore without borrowing lots of money. Parents can't just, you know, write a check for the local public university. They have to save a lot of money ahead of time or put themselves into debt themselves, which many of them are doing. And so I think President Obama was kind of tapping into this sense that, you know, given the world we live in where some kind of post-secondary credential - not necessarily a traditional bachelor's degree - but some kind of credential is essential for getting a good job, people should at least be able to get those first two years regardless of how much money they have.

GROSS: Do you think that will happen?

CAREY: It's very hard to get anything passed through the United States Congress right now, so it's hard for anything to happen. If you made me decide, do I think it's likely it will happen during this administration? No, probably not. But, you know, oftentimes putting the idea out there and kind of getting the conversation going can yield dividends farther down the road when the environment has changed.

GROSS: So one more question. Do you see online studies eventually penetrating into the public school system?

CAREY: It depends. You know, I have a daughter who's 4 and a half years old. She's in pre-kindergarten right now. She doesn't need to be taught by a computer. She needs to be taught by a person. And the - developmentally, the appropriate mix of in-person technology - in-person instruction, traditional instruction and technology I think changes as people get older.

That said, certainly I think in high school there are probably substantial populations of students who can do very well in this. When I finished the MIT class that I took, I interviewed Eric Lander, the professor, and I asked him - I said what surprised you the most about taking this class? And his answer was it turns out there a lot of really smart 13-year-olds in the world. And lo and behold, there was a kind of a very distinct subpopulation of very, very bright adolescents who were taking this MIT college-level class. The very first class that MITX put out there was a course in circuits and electronics. They tried to make it - again, because they were very worried about making sure that it was hard enough for MIT - they made the final exam very, very difficult. Of the tens of thousands of people who took it, I think less than 100, maybe, got a perfect score. One of them was a 16-year-old boy in Mongolia, in Ulaanbaatar, literally as far away from MIT as you can be and still be on the face of the earth. He was a prodigy. He logged on to this class. He took it for free. Mongolia's first MIT graduate had sort of set up a class at his high school and was encouraging people to take this course. He took the class. He got a perfect score, and he is enrolled on the MIT campus today. So I think there's a lot of potential as students move into the secondary part of their education, the high school part of their education, for online learning to really be a boon to them.

GROSS: Well, Kevin Carey, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

CAREY: Thanks for having me. It's been wonderful.

GROSS: Kevin Carey is the author of "The End Of College: Creating The Future Of Learning At The University Of Everywhere." Coming up, book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews a satirical novel about race and how we talk about it. This is FRESH AIR.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. T. Geronimo Johnson published his first novel, "Hold It 'Til It Hurts," in 2012, and it became a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award in fiction that year. He's just brought out his second novel, a social satire called "Welcome To Braggsville," which has our book critic, Maureen Corrigan, reaching for superlatives. Here's her review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Here's only a partial list of some great American writers whose names came to mind as I was reading T. Geronimo Johnson's new novel, "Welcome To Braggsville" - Tom Wolfe, Mark Twain, Toni Morrison, H. L. Mencken, Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace, Norman Mailer and Ralph Ellison, Ralph Ellison, Ralph Ellison.

Johnson's timely novel is a tipsy social satire about race and the oh-so-fragile ties that bind disparate parts of this country into an imperfect and restless union. It's an ambitious book that not only wants to say something big about America, but aims to do so in a big American voice that contains multitudes. The premise alone of "Welcome To Braggsville" hints at its energy and audaciousness. Our hapless main character here is a young, white, working-class Southerner named D'aron Davenport. That's D'aron, spelled with an apostrophe between the D and the A because that's just how they do things in his hometown of Braggsville, Ga., a place where, as the locals say, every wrong turn was a dead end.

D'aron is smart enough to get a scholarship to Berkeley, or Berserk-ley, as he quickly comes to think of this alien college planet where professors and fellow students alike speak in tortured tongues derived from multiculturalist theory. Eventually, shell-shocked D'aron meets up with three other students hovering on the fringes - an earnest girl from Iowa, named Candice, who claims to be part Native American; an African-American guy, named Charlie, from inner-city Chicago; and Louis, a sassy Asian teen from San Francisco whose goal in life is to become, as he says, the next Lenny Bruce Lee, kung fu comedian.

In their sophomore year, this rainbow band of friends makes the fatal error of signing up together for a course called American History X, Y and Z, Alternative Perspectives. You can imagine the academic farce fun that Johnson has in describing this laissez faire course which seems to require only that its students dialogue with each other and submit video projects at the end of the term.

One day in class, the topic of historical reenactments comes up, and D'aron lets slip that his home town of Braggsville puts on a kind of glorious, lost cause Civil War battle reenactment every year. Faster than you can say performative intervention, D'aron's friends persuade him that it would be cool to visit Braggsville and stage a scene to helpfully remind its residents about the horrors of slavery. Louis, the Asian guy, will be in blackface, playing a slave. When he acts uppity, he'll be whipped and then mock-lynched by the other three students. What ensues, however, once D'aron and his idealistic friends reach Braggsville is an out-of-control disaster in which "Confederates In The Attic" meets "Confederacy Of Dunces."

As a social satirist, Johnson is an equal-opportunity mocker. The smug insularity of the elite university classroom is mirrored by the militant anti-intellectualism of Braggsville. D'aron and his friends may be guilty of being too easily led by their Berserk-ley injections of Noam Chomsky and Judith Butler, but so, too, are the Braggsvillians, marching and whooping behind the banner of the Confederacy - ditto the Nubian Black separatists, KKK Klansmen and other groups of protesters who pile into the fray.

After the decidedly unfunny tragic turning point of this novel, its plot flags a little. But Johnson's exuberant language never does. Like Ellison's masterpiece, "Invisible Man," "Welcome To Braggsville" deploys all sorts of different voices and narrative techniques, stream of consciousness poetry, fantasy and straight up realism to explore all the myriad ways Americans miscommunicate when we try to talk about race. The novel ends with a tour-de-force riff on black history, which Johnson writes, in its myriad inversions, loops, whorls, coils, corkscrews, spirals - from slavery to Jim Crow, to the carceral state - is the helix that stitches the U.S. of A.'s social DNA. "Welcome To Braggsville" isn't quite "Invisible Man" or "White Noise," but it gets within hailing distance of their heights. It's as American as chattel slavery and Lenny Bruce Lee.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University and is the author of the new book, "So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came To Be And Why It Endures." She reviewed "Welcome To Braggsville" by T. Geronimo Johnson.

Coming up, we remember jazz record producer Orrin Keepnews who made recordings by Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, Bill Evans and many other great jazz musicians. Keepnews died Sunday at age 91. We'll listen back to a 1988 interview with him. This is FRESH AIR.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. The jazz musicians of Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, Wes Montgomery, Bill Evans, Cannonball Adderley and Abbey Lincoln are just a few of the musicians whose seminal work was recorded by Orrin Keepnews. He cofounded two of the most important independent record labels of the '50s and '60s - Riverside and Milestone. Orrin Keepnews died on Sunday, one day before his 92nd birthday. Keepnews was a four-time Grammy award winner, earning two for producing and two for his liner notes. He was recognized with a lifetime achievement award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, which administers the Grammys, and was named a jazz master by the National Endowment for the Arts. I spoke with Orrin Keepnews in 1988 after the release of the box set reissue "Thelonious Monk: The Complete Riverside Recordings," which won a Grammy for best historical album. Let's start with a track from it. This is "Just You, Just Me," recorded in 1956.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUST YOU, JUST ME")

THELONIOUS MONK: (Playing piano).

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: When you worked with Monk, you were a young producer working with one of the most brilliant and one of the most eccentric musicians in the whole history of jazz. What was he like to record? How did his eccentricities express themselves in the recording studio?

ORRIN KEEPNEWS: Well, first of all, calling me a young producer is really giving me the best of it.

GROSS: (Laughter).

KEEPNEWS: I was an absolutely naive, childish, inexperienced producer back then. So I look back on those sessions and the difficulties of this man as being the most important learning experience in my career. He was difficult for a number of reasons, but I think the most important reason he was difficult is this was a completely self-contained man. He knew exactly what he wanted out of his music. And he was every bit as demanding of other people - the other musicians and myself - as he was of himself.

And that was very unfair 'cause he knew what it was all about, and we really didn't. We had to kind of catch on this express train as it went roaring by. He was never a patient man. And I think he legitimately did not understand that it was difficult for other people to appreciate and understand his music and difficult even for very talented musicians to perform it to his satisfaction very quickly.

GROSS: In your liner notes, you write that working on behalf of an artist doesn't mean you have to be a doormat - you know, that working with an artist and trying to be, you know, on their side doesn't mean you just, like, put up with anything. What gave you that realization?

KEEPNEWS: Well, I guess that realization was spurred by these early encounters with Thelonius. And I recall one specific situation where it was the first time - the first of two separate occasions that I did a totally solo album with him - just a solo piano album. And he showed up for a session close to an hour late and really in no condition to go to work. And I somehow or other lost my temper, informed him that I really didn't care whether or not he had respect me, but I had to have respect for me and that in the future, anybody can have, say, 15 minutes or so of leeway, but if he wasn't going to be there within a half an hour of the appointed time, don't bother to show up because I wouldn't be there. We rescheduled this date for a few days later. I got there about 10 or 15 minutes early. And he was sitting in the control room waiting for me with a beautiful, big smile, which he was quite capable of. He said, what kept you?

GROSS: Was that a turning point in your relationship with him?

KEEPNEWS: I think so. I think, you know - not that I - in no way was this deliberate, but I - when I eventually stood up there and said, hey, you know, I'm a human being, too, and get off my back and things like that, it worked. And we had a - for the next several years, I think, had a very good and I think obviously very creative and, to me, very satisfying working relationship.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAZZ MUSIC)

GROSS: Over the years, how has your idea of what a producer does changed?

KEEPNEWS: Well, I don't know that actually has fundamentally changed, again, because I probably learned my lesson so well at the hands of a master, Thelonious. But I, from the beginning, conceived of the idea of the role of the producer as being a catalytic agent, feeling that my job was to create the circumstances, set the scene in such a way that the artists could behave at his creative best. And although my methods of accomplishing that or my techniques of doing it have undoubtedly changed and developed and become more flexible of the years, that concept, I guess, as I look back on it, has stayed with me for over 30 years.

GROSS: In your liner notes for the Thelonious Monk box set, you say that you really learned that musicians saw both record companies and record producers as the enemy or, at least, the opposition. I'm going to ask you briefly explain why so many musicians feel that way about record producers and what you tried to do what to prove that you didn't want to be the enemy or the opposition.

KEEPNEWS: Well, it's a complex thing in the sense that, well, I guess, obviously, to some extent, I was talking about a racial situation. Most jazz musicians are black. Most record company executives and producers are white. That should be reasonably self-explanatory as an initial attitude. I've always felt that I've lived in a musical world, in an environment that, basically, properly belongs to the black artist - that I have to prove my way in that world. And I also think that it was a matter of the employer and employee relationship, which comes into the picture. These are things that I tried to break down.

GROSS: Orrin Keepnews, recorded in 1988. He died yesterday, one day before his 92nd birthday. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will Kim Gordon. She co-founded the band Sonic Youth with Thurston Moore. When the marriage broke up, so did the band. We'll talk about being a woman in the post-punk music scene and about searching for a new identity after the end of her marriage and Sonic Youth.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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