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.