It is not an understatement to think of "A Different World" as the single most important cultural achievement for historically black colleges and universities in American history, and one of the top five pop cultural achievements for African-Americans. Its impact on exposing the value and social construct of the HBCU is but a subtext to a larger scope of showing personable young African-Americans from diverse backgrounds as intelligent, humorous and introspective in their educational pursuits.
More than 20 years later, its episodic themes continue to resonate with black college students and graduates of all ages, creating a nostalgia among both groups for the HBCU culture that holds tight, instills wisdom and good times, and releases graduates ready to conquer the world.
Bill Cosby's "A Different World" was the phantom right cross to complement Spike Lee's uppercutting "School Daze;" a warmer, friendlier, weekly edition of black college life to offset Lee's gritty depiction of HBCU life. Today, "A Different World" still brings a powerful artistry to the benefits of the HBCUs; the socially conscious, family-centered faculty, intimate community setting, conservative-yet-well meaning administration, and all of the campus trappings.
The show helped usher in a golden age of HBCU culture to mainstream Black America, an age where sweatshirts and step shows and meals at "The Pit" became part of Black America's mainstream pop cultural conscience. It's influence created an explosion in applications, enrollment and graduation rates at black colleges, and continues to be catalyst for the loftiest expectations and aims for HBCU student and institution alike.
But sadly, we find that the Hillman College of yesteryear that still makes for great television, now makes for a less-than-adequate representation of what HBCUs experience and encounter in today's higher ed climate. For the genius of Dr. Bill Cosby and Dr. Alvin F. Poussaint in its creation, Debbie Allen in its latter direction and command of socially controversial issues, and the mastery of its cast, all that once glittered on the Hillman campus now makes for fool's gold among its viewing audience.
We now live with an HBCU culture that confronts program duplication and threat of merger with the same regularity present 20 years ago, when such themes never made the "Different World" script review. While "A Different World" artfully integrated racial diversity into its themes with believable access and insight, today's black colleges struggle with the cultural balancing act of serving their cultural and academic missions while navigating growing political criticism of their existence and relevance.
Both issues were very present in the early '90s, but certainly not a priority in the effort to formally introduce HBCUs to a larger American audience.
And while "A Different World" did find a platform to examine the student scramble for scholarships and resources to stay in school, today's HBCU climate is as much defined by low retention rates and loan defaults then by its tassel-turning objective. Economic realities would dictate the need for a pop cultural look at the crisis, but with "ADW" as our best and only representation, it won't be a soon-coming reality.
It's not to blame "A Different World" for the lack of public awareness of issues black colleges face today. It was made for, and captured the elements of a different time and place. But for all that "A Different World" delivered to the world on behalf of HBCUs, the real challenges faced by these schools is greater than the show, or any show perhaps, could undertake to expose to the masses.
There's an element of accidental misrepresentation in today's view of "A Different World." In the longing for an HBCU culture of the past, there's a convenient path of distraction from today's issues of importance. Just as the show initially overwhelmed and ushered viewers into a brave new world of black achievement, its transition into a nostalgic monument to the same can diminish focus on Bobby Jindal's attempted poaching of Southern University at New Orleans, natural disaster recovery efforts at HBCUs in North Carolina and Alabama, and long-standing cultural issues at HBCUs that will never see prime time television.
Even if just for 30 minutes every night, the impact it had to shift black students to pursue higher education can, and possibly is, creating the same shift in neglecting important trends and initiatives threatening HBCUs in today's reality.
It's a different world in which we live than the one chronicled by the students at Hillman College. So different that people are proudly profiting off of the Hillman College brand in the name of building black college pride. Thankfully, "A Different World" is still available for us to cherish and remember.
Sadly, it remains popular enough and so well done that it can give present and future HBCU advocates reason to believe that a Hillman that never really existed in reality lives on and thrives today.
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