Wednesday, October 02, 2013


...and The Rest...

Along with every other Gen X’er, I grew up watching reruns of Gilligan’s Island.  It stuck with me.  In my first gender studies class in college, I understood the madonna/whore dichotomy by thinking of Mary Ann and Ginger.  Last year, I couldn’t watch Mitt Romney without thinking of Thurston Howell III.  (“Dressage” is pure Howell.)  In the second and third seasons of the show, the opening theme song ended with “The Professor and Mary Ann.”  But in the first season, it ended with “and the rest,” showing pictures of The Professor and Mary Ann.  Even as a kid, it struck me that The Professor and Mary Ann got a raw deal in that first season.

I thought about The Professor and Mary Ann while reading the umpteenth report on developmental math and workforce development.  Over the past few years, those two parts of the curriculum have received tremendous attention, and for good reason.  Developmental math has been a stumbling block for many students, and the need to make a living is real.  No argument there.

But developmental math and workforce courses aren’t the entire curriculum.  For example, did you know that most community colleges also teach sociology, and political science, and history?  It’s true!  You could be excused for not knowing it, based on the press, but it’s true.  They’re the “and the rest...” of the curriculum.  And that’s a shame, because they’re much more important than that.

In my faculty days, I taught political science.  I can’t remember the last time I saw a statewide or federal project on the teaching of political science in community colleges.  And the same is true of history, sociology, psychology, anthropology…

I’d like to report that the relative inattention to the social sciences is because everything in them is fine.  But that’s just not true.  And I refuse to believe that they’re unimportant.  So why the inattention?

Part of it, I think, is because they don’t fall cleanly into a widely understood crisis.  Developmental math plays into the completion agenda in obvious -- and legitimate -- ways.  Workforce courses play into the recession in obvious and legitimate ways.  Intro to American Government, or Intro to Sociology, won’t place as cleanly into a widely understood script.  

The scripts exist.  Political disengagement -- or illiteracy -- is a major issue, especially among young people, low-income people, and immigrants.  For that matter, a lack of the “sociological imagination” -- which I’ll reduce to the ability to discern structures behind behaviors -- is endemic among pretty much the entire population.  I see both as fundamental for any educated person, and as crucial for effective and informed democratic participation.  

In my darker moments, I wonder if that’s exactly the issue.  

But I don’t want to dwell there, because it doesn’t lead anywhere good.  So instead I’ll focus on more salable reasons to look closely at the introductory social sciences in community colleges.  

An understanding of basic economics, particularly in the context of personal finance, can help students tremendously as they graduate into a challenging job market.  A basic knowledge of how politics in America work is part of citizenship.  Being able to move intellectually from “Dave is really being a jerk” to “what is Dave responding to that makes him act like a jerk?” is useful both in the short term -- conflict resolution, say -- and in the long term, in seeing and building new possibilities.  

I’m assuming, of course, that the intro courses actually get students there.  They may or may not; I haven’t seen any good national data on them.  Which is sort of the point.  The questions haven’t been considered important enough even to bother asking.

Yes to the Skipper, and yes to Gilligan.  But let’s not forget The Professor and Mary Ann.  If colleges are going to teach them too, let’s devote some attention to seeing that we teach them well.  It’s the second season; let’s include them in the credits.

And there certainly isn't anything in recent current events that would lead you to believe that the American people could benefit from knowing more about how their government works ...
You don't need "crisis" rhetoric and a National Task Force or whatever wringing its hands and issuing press releases to teach a subject well. Hire creative and conscientious social science faculty, support them as well as you can, let them do their job and do it well, be glad that there are students who take the classes, and when you see places in the curriculum where additional social science requirements make sense then consider adding the courses. (While keeping in mind, of course, the dangers in overloading requirements.)

It is possible for a subject to be well-taught and well-learned without lots of people running around wringing their hands over a crisis. I'm far from convinced that all the "We need more people in STEM! We need more people in STEM! The Russians and Chinese will beat us!" rhetoric has actually been a net benefit to the teaching of STEM. If anything, the crisis rhetoric has driven fads and prevented a hard look at actual workforce needs (some of which are more on the vocational side where CCs run circles around 4-years).
Basic economics, though, has nothing to do with personal finance... it has a lot more to do with understanding the government and economy, just as your political science example.
I've never seen 'Gilligan's Island,' but I have seen and done dressage and think I get the Howell reference enough to comment.

I know dressage looks crazy-Wasp, la-di-dah, fancy schmancy, hoity-toity, elitist, and all the rest. We're Americans, dammit, and good Americans ride with cowboy saddles cowboy style!

Truth is, though, cowboy saddles are truly stupid except for the most limited and narrow purposes. Cowboy riding barely scratches the surface of what a horse and rider can do. Dressage training, however esoteric the product appears to the uninitiated, is intense, difficult, a constant interplay and communication between two bodies and two minds.

You don't have to be Ann Romney to do dressage. You and your horse will be all the happier for learning just a few basics of the art.

Not to be sniffed at!
Believe it or not, this happens in developmental math too. The conversation isn't as much about changing WHAT we teach - for instance quantitative literacy and how to use math & statistics to be better citizens. Imagine the benefit if everyone understood that any distribution of opinions/experiences has at least a few people far away from the norm. (Of course there are a few global warming dissenters!) Unfortunately, most of the completion-oriented conversation is about making math easier or faster.

There are a few notable exceptions, however. The New Life Math project, Carnegie's Statway (etc), the Dana Center's work all focus on "what" as well as "how fast".
Honestly, I think you're forgetting that for the first 12 years of a kids school life, they get a ton of econ, history, and social studies and if it hasn't stuck before college it's not likely to afterwards. Kids grow up parroting what their parents think or what they learned in school and few if any learn to critically examine those beliefs. Not because they can't (although there are many that lack the capacity to think that way) and not because they don't have the interest. It's just not an easy thing to do or something that our broader culture embraces to any large degree. No college class, however well designed, is going to stem the tide on that one.

What would improve things in my opinion would be better journalism and a return to the time that networks were required to be fair and unbiased in their news reporting. Honestly, if all you do is watch FOX news, you're going to have a certain predictable world view. The same would happen on a steady diet of Jon Stewart or Steven Colbert. What people need is good information in the environment in which they live - untainted by moneyed influence. Part of the problem now is that we don't even agree on what's real (climate change, evolution, the effects of the sequester, the cost of a government shutdown etc.)
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