Sunday, June 21, 2015


A Well-Kept Secret

I love the news that Cuyahoga Community College received a ten million dollar grant from the Jack, Joseph, and Morton Mandel Foundation to establish a humanities center.

Humanities and social sciences at community colleges have become incredibly well-kept secrets over the last ten years or so, and that’s unfortunate.  In some ways, community colleges are their natural habitat.  But they tend to fly below the radar, disguised as “general education.”

“General education” covers the distribution requirements that most students have to complete on their way to a degree in a given major.  Even Nursing students have to take English 101.  The idea is that certain skills -- and in a more classical sense, certain cultural references -- should be common to all college graduates, regardless of major.  The old “canon” has largely fallen out of fashion, not least in the departments where it used to find a home, but the skills argument remains.  To the extent that higher education moves more aggressively to a competency-based format, I’d expect to see the last vestiges of the “canon” school fade away, but the “skills” school can coexist quite nicely with the competency-based format.  

That’s not necessarily good.  Back in the canon wars of the 80’s and 90’s, it was commonplace for people on both sides to assume that any argument from a “canon” or “common knowledge” was a stalking horse for political conservatism.  It isn’t.  It’s possible to be conversant in, say, Plato, and still hold any of a host of political viewpoints.  In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the turn away from large-scale attempts to theorize politics is a symptom of a larger surrender; at its best, theory offers the chance to look at things as they are and say “it doesn’t have to be this way.”  “Theory” comes from “theoria,” meaning “to see” -- it offers the possibility of a bird’s-eye view.  

I sometimes wonder if part of the appeal of tech-gadgetry-fandom is its implicit utopianism.  That’s almost entirely absent from our politics now.  Utopianism has its drawbacks, heaven knows -- nobody can look at twentieth-century political history and not see that -- but its absence tends to leave existing power not only uncontested, but naturalized.  The spirit of “it doesn’t have to be this way” is alive and well in tech startups, even if it’s largely absent from our politics.  

Of course, failing to teach the history of ideas doesn’t make the thirst for making sense of the world go away.  It just cedes the field to the crackpots.  The idiots who obsess over “1488” think they’re solving something.  In the absence of better ideas, awful ideas sometimes find fertile ground.  In the absence of Nietzsche, angry young men find Ayn Rand.  I’d rather they found Nietzsche.

Community colleges, by definition, are open to everyone.  They reach people nobody else will reach, or at least, nobody else without predatory intent will reach.  Some of the people who show up here are angry -- for entirely valid reasons -- and looking not only to get a better job, but to make some sort of sense of the world.  

Humanities and social sciences at community colleges fulfill distribution requirements, yes, but they do more than that.  They offer a bigger picture to some people whose worlds have been kept small.  They offer a tantalizing sense of possibility -- a sense of agency in the workings of the world, or at least a sense that the dots can be connected in some meaningful way.  Over the years, I’ve heard repeatedly from students who enrolled just to get a job, but who had an intellectual awakening in a class they took just to fulfill a requirement.  Some switch focus, some don’t, and I like to think that some carry the newfound habits of mind with them wherever they go.  In my teaching days, one of my most satisfying moments came when a colleague who taught another discipline reported that a former student of mine had made a great point in class, and stayed later to talk with her about it; during the conversation, it came out that she had been chewing on something from my class for months, and couldn’t let it go.  That may or may not show up in a competency rubric, but it matters.

Bravo to the Mandel Foundation for recognizing that community colleges aren’t just workforce training centers.  Our students deserve exposure to the big questions just as much as anyone else’s.  Utopianism shouldn’t just be for tech startups.  It doesn’t have to be this way.

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