Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Montesquieu Goes to College

Should different economic classes have different colleges?  And should those colleges have different missions?

I’m not talking about the elite-of-the-elite letting in a few scholarship students, as welcome as that is.  I’m thinking more of art history and philosophy at community colleges.  

With what I have to assume is basically good intent, President Obama and many governors are pushing the idea of community colleges becoming workforce training centers.  They’re redirecting funding from general operational budgets -- the budget that supports every program at a college -- to grants targeted at favored programs.  Generally speaking, that means either STEM fields or fields with presumed local employability.  The motivation seems to be to do something about jobs, in hopes of getting the economy moving (and the votes flowing).

On the ground, though, the effects are disturbing.

This report from Diverse Issues in Higher Education suggests the effects of, in essence, replicating the K-12 “tracking” system in higher education.  Simply put, it increases the social separation between those who can afford (or can slip into) elite institutions, and everyone else.  

Tuesday’s post discussed the value of cross-class exposure and interaction in college.  That kind of interaction is only possible when different classes are present.  And that will only happen when colleges aren’t rigidly stratified by class.

This isn’t -- at all -- an argument against vocational programs or training.  Those programs meet specific needs, and they’ve done wonders when done right.  

Instead, it’s an argument for properly valuing the liberal arts in a community college setting.  Literature, philosophy, art history, political science, and economics shouldn’t be the privilege of those who have money.  They’re the shared (if contested) heritage of a culture, and they bespeak possibilities beyond the present.  They’re enriched by a panoply of perspectives, but that panoply is unlikely to be robust if everyone in the discussion went to prep school.  

Besides, if you take the whole “student loans are choking the young” argument seriously -- which I do -- then a robust liberal arts transfer route from the community college level becomes part of the solution.  If you do two years at the community college, incurring little or no debt, and then transfer to a traditional four-year college, you can escape with a lower debt burden than you otherwise would.  To the politicians out there, I’d mention that this is its own form of workforce development.  The student who transfers to a four-year college and then goes on to medical school -- and yes, we have those -- does quite well in the job market, thank you very much.  

Some faculty locally have opined that the drive to reduce community colleges to workforce training centers is based on a desire to strip the lower classes of the faculties of critical thought, the better to keep them down.  That argument strikes me as a little self-flattering, a little patronizing, and oddly enough, a little too credulous.  A good nurse needs critical thought to do the job well, for example.  More to the point, though, in my discussions with political leaders, I just don’t think they’re that deep.  They aren’t trying to wall off philosophy from the proletariat for fear of revolution; they just want to get past the recession as quickly as possible, and this seems as good a way as any.

In other words, the issue isn’t so much nefariousness or corruption as shallowness.  Paradoxically enough, the shallowness goes all the way down.

Perorations on the wonderfulness of the liberal arts are fine, as far as they go, but they tend to land on deaf ears.  If we academics want to keep the liberal arts available for students of limited means -- and having been one, I am firmly on board with that -- the arguments to make are around cross-class contact, transfer, and student debt.  We can orate to each other to keep up morale, if we want, and the old-time religion makes great fodder for graduation speeches.  But if we want to preserve this audaciously idealistic mission of bringing the liberal arts to the masses, we have to start from where we are.  

The alternative is to recreate the economic segregation of our neighborhoods in our colleges.  And that would be a loss for everybody.