Tuesday, September 14, 2010

When We Say “College,” We Don’t Mean You...

Sigh. The New York Times strikes again. This time it’s with a four-part colloquy of important people discussing “why are colleges so selective?”

How is someone at a community college supposed to read the question “why are colleges so selective?”

a. ironically
b. as a direct slap in the face
c. as yet another indication of just how provincial the New York Times is
d. all of the above

To explain the Times’ thinking, I’ll trot out my old friend, the syllogism. Colleges are selective. Community colleges are not selective. Therefore, community colleges are not colleges.


Honestly, sometimes reading the Times I channel my inner Lou Ferrigno. “HULK SMASH PUNY RECORDING SECRETARY OF RULING CLASS!” What’s the difference between the New York Times and David Hasselhoff? One is a pathetic joke, and the other is David Hasselhoff. This story is so bad, it almost makes me long for the only-mildly-embarrassing musings of Stanley Fish.


I couldn’t really expect them to acknowledge the existence of community colleges. There are only 1100 or so of them in the U.S., enrolling just under half of the entire undergraduate population of the country. By contrast, there are over seven schools in the Ivy League alone!

Of the four -- count ‘em! -- contributors to the “dialogue,” only one, Jane Wellman, even bothers to note the existence of non-elite colleges. Only one -- Stephen Trachtenberg -- has actually worked in college administration. It goes without saying that none of the four works at a community college.

Lest this be written off as status anxiety, I’ll note that I’m a graduate of one of the colleges the authors actually name. Been there, done that, graduated with honors, thanks. It’s not about sour grapes, and don’t even try to get all ad hominem on me. I got my hand stamped.

It’s about objecting to elite provincialism. Put differently, it’s about acknowledging reality.

From this story, you’d think the greatest challenge facing students today is too much perfectionism. If only! Most of our students require developmental math. Perfectionism is the least of our problems.

Here’s a thought. Instead of wringing our hands over the poor lost souls who miss out on Dartmouth and have to settle for Bucknell -- oh, the humanity! -- let’s send some fraction of that money and time and money and focus and money to the institutions that actually educate most Americans: the non-elite publics. That would mean community colleges, and it would also mean most of the four-year state colleges. You know, the backbone of the middle fucking class. Those schools. The ones that actually compete with the for-profits, and that provide the best hope for most people. The ones that have taken draconian cuts even while their enrollments have risen. Those.

Hell, while we’re at it, let’s make a point of generating enough math teachers so that every state in the country can require four years of math in high school. Get the public K-12 system up to basic competence, and see what happens. Yes, it might lead to even more competition for the elite colleges, as all those talented-but-lower-income kids finally get a chance to shine, but frankly, that’s a problem worth having. And if we can fund public higher ed the way it should be funded, it will provide plenty of capacity for the strong students who didn’t get into Princeton. Speaking for my math department, I’ll attest confidently that we’d be happy -- thrilled! -- to add more sections of differential equations. Bring ‘em on! The English department would be more than happy to run more upper-level literature electives. Admissions would be thrilled to process more AP credits. We can handle this problem.

Elite college angst isn’t a symptom of the human condition. It’s a direct and predictable consequence of class polarization. You know, the kind of class polarization in which it never even occurs to some people that some colleges aren’t selective. Because they don’t mean to include those when they say ‘college.’ The kind in which other classes are so far removed as to become simply invisible. The kind in which you’d convene a group to discuss college admissions without once mentioning open-admissions institutions. That kind.

I’m tired of watching mysteriously-annointed experts solve the wrong problem. Times, if you’re the least bit serious about higher education -- a colossal ‘if,’ I’ll admit -- would it actually, physically kill you to acknowledge the colleges to which most Americans go? And when you do, could it please be in the same section of the paper as the stories about safety schools and selective admissions? The blind, smug elitism is really getting to be a bit much, even for you. Community colleges are news fit to print, too. Honestly.