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.

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

Have you read Kentaro Toyama's book Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology? If not, you need to: He's a Computer PhD who spent year studying why and how technology hasn't lived up to its utopian promise in education and other fields.

The book is not easily summarized but it is brilliant. As a grant writer I've worked on numerous technology-will-save-us projects, my favorite being the 21st Century Community Learning Centers (21st CCLC) program. The premise was that we'd chunk technology at schools and see Einsteins emerge. The result has been... not that. Toyama discusses why. I've been citing the book in recent proposals.
If not for a college lit class in a before-its-time approach to liberal arts education within a STEM context, I would not have read Player Piano. That was also before its time. When they automate your job, it is progress. When they automate mine, it is a disaster. The only question is whether higer-ed admin, with its data collection and report writing, is more easily automated than the personal touch involved in learning.

Thanks for the tip, jakeselinger. What I read on Amazon looks really interesting. The most striking thing is the actual admission that technology (read as the "latest and greatest") has not lived up to its promise, although I would argue that one reason is failing to pay attention to cost -vs- benefit and sustainability. I know many kids who became fluent in Spanish because a daily elementary school TV lesson got them to continue it in middle school and high school. But many other things look just like programmed learning or PLATO or similar somewhat-effective methods of the past that were merely abandoned with the next principal or a new crop of teachers.

On Dean Dad's main point, I would argue (as my Dad did about his humanities classes as he prepared for a technical career) that the canon is more important to a first-in-family kid than it is to upper division majors in the humanities. How can you make your point in PoliSci if the kid doesn't know who Plato was (and perhaps why PLATO was chosen for the name of the first true computer-teaching system)? My Dad's point was that STEM people do not deal exclusively with other STEM people. He needed to be conversant with politicians and business people, and they with him, and gen ed classes provide that common reference point.

For me, learning deconstruction in my HS senior comp class has proved invaluable in my scientific career, and the biggest weakness I see in STEM students everywhere (but more often at a CC) is a lack of close-reading skills. You can't solve problems without knowing how to do that. But you also have to know what Everyone knows -- technical and artistic vocabulary -- at the basic level that is well described as the canon. Imagine what would happen to aircraft safety if physics decided we would only teach modern topics like quantum mechanics and relativity and not bother with those out-of-date ideas like forces?

Finally, imagine how much more one gets from viewing "Inside Out" if you know both the skill of deconstruction and the canon that includes cubism and intro psych?
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