Thursday, February 12, 2015

Standing Calvin on His Head

The New York Times had an unusually thoughtful and well-written piece this week (by Kristin O’Keefe) on the wide acceptance of the distinction between community college and “real” college.  It’s heartbreaking in its content, and in the fact that it had to be written at all.

The status distinction implied by the contrast isn’t just annoying; it does real harm.  To the extent that some students internalize it, it can be demotivating or devaluing.  It sets up a lose-lose: do poorly in your classes and you confirm your self-doubts, but do well in your classes and it doesn’t really count because it isn’t a “real” college.  Developmental classes double down on that; even if you do incredibly well in them, they don’t “count.”  Ugh.  If you’re coming in already unsure of your capabilities, that’s a lot of emotional baggage to work around.

Community colleges teach content and skills, and those matter.  But at their best, they also un-teach some really awful social messages about value, and about what “merit” looks like.  I’ve heard students (and graduates) say that community college was the first institution that has ever done right by them.  At their best, community colleges show respect for students, some of whom haven’t received much respect over the years.  Unaccustomed respect can have powerful effects.

A favorite true story: a few years ago, a student with a checkered academic past got an A on a paper in a class here.  He jumped up and started running through the hallway yelling “A motherf---ing A!  I got a motherf---ing A!  I never got a motherf---ing A in my life!”  Yes, he could have phrased it differently, but it changed his life.  It may have been his first A, but it was not his last.

One classic vision of college holds that it’s about “weeding out.”  It assumes that students are unworthy until they prove otherwise.  It assumes that if you washed out, it’s because you lacked “merit.”  If you lack merit, this vision goes, you have no right to complain.  “Merit” is assumed to inhere (or not) in the student, and the degree to which you have it will be revealed through steadily increasing scrutiny.  Students live in constant fear of being found out.  In settings like those, some level of impostor syndrome among students is almost inevitable.  They develop a sort of Calvinist anxiety about whether they’re among the elect or not, always requiring more proof.  

The miracle of community colleges is that they stand the Calvinist view on its head.  They assume that all students are worthy of respect, and that there’s enough success to go around.  They assume that you can’t tell who’s capable just by looking at them, so you have to give everyone a shot.  You do that because the students are worth it.  They’re worth it before they even get here.  If anything, the burden is on the institution to prove itself worthy of the students.

That may look to some people like not being a “real” college.  I think it looks like democratic  ethics, founded in a radical sense of reciprocity.  It’s a kind of idealism that waxes and wanes in American culture -- it’s very much at a low point now -- but that never quite goes away.  It’s based on the assumption that nobody is special, and nobody is worthless.  We all have something to contribute.  We just have to figure out what it is, and work the hell out of it.  This is a space in which to do that.  

In a period of unprecedented stratification, in which the ever-present Calvinist streak in American culture insists that economic class reflects your worth as a person, that kind of reciprocity-based respect can seem bizarre, anachronistic, or threatening.  If you base your sense of worth on exclusivity, then such an inclusive institution threatens the source of your sense of worth.  So you attack it as “politically correct,” or “naive,” or “impractical.”  And enough real flaws exist that there’s always something to find.  

But if you don’t think community colleges are “real” colleges, talk to some first-generation graduates.  Tell them what you think, to their faces.  Then stand back.

They’re worthy.  They always were.  And they remember who treated them accordingly.