Needless to say, one powerful message In The Basement of the Ivory Tower delivers is how profoundly different the lives of academics are, not just because our students are sorted and tracked at an early age by testing, poverty and race, but because many of the students in most need of close attention and the time to reflect, read and learn to express themselves are the least likely to have that opportunity. Furthermore, a community college campus may be running two entirely different schools in the same space. By day, tenured faculty and long-term adjuncts teach students who may indeed go on to a B.A.: you might be interested to know that a number of these students end up at places like Zenith as transfers, and do very well despite the fact that they haven’t had access to the kind of curricula that liberal arts colleges see is a crucial foundation to upper level work. Other than intelligence, one reason for this in my view is a higher degree of maturity and commitment to their courses than many students (who have taken this opportunity for granted) have.
if we are educating large numbers of people inappropriately, and at great expense to them, what would it mean to educate people well? While Professor X displays a high level of devotion to his students, the “realism” that he insists we adopt towards community college students, as taxpayers and as citizens, verges so closely on contempt for them that the book can be a difficult read. Granted, many students come to community college (or Zenith, for that matter) needing to be brought up to speed on things they never learned in high school. The gap in some cases is far greater than it is in others. But is that a reason to throw in the towel on college?
That Professor X is an “accidental academic” speaks volumes, in the sense of how much public policymakers now prize the voices of “outsiders” to the profession of education, and the voices of successful businesspeople and politicians for whom having gone to school is qualification enough to play a decisive role in shaping public education. We who have made careers in higher ed, the reasoning goes, are far too immersed in our tenure systems, our unions, and our persnickety claptrap about committee work to understand “the big picture.” We are myopic. We are perpetual adolescents who have fled from the challenges of the “real world” and pursued graduate educations that suit us for nothing better than to return to school for the rest of our natural lives (“Those who can’t do, teach/Those who can’t teach, teach gym,” they are snickering in the New Jersey and Wisconsin governor’s mansions.)
It’s a surprise we are able to pull ourselves together to pay our taxes every year.
It’s also not an accident that Professor X’s day job is in government: a self-confessed bureaucrat of some kind, he is no stranger to waste, mismanagement, and the outdated social theories that throw money at problems, as if money solved anything. Indeed, that only a fraction of X’s students are able to move successfully through the courses he teaches, and that a dramatically large number fail the same course repeatedly without apparently ever having had a clue what their own failure to do the work had to do with the outcome, is a compelling argument for cutting education budgets and excluding people from college altogether.
And yet: what does it really mean about us as a society that we are able to tolerate, simultaneously, such vast gaps in educational opportunity, and such profound contempt for those people to whom we literally give almost nothing for their hard-earned tuition dollars: not a clean classroom, not a professional teacher, not access to writing centers, not a class that meets before 10 P.M., not child care? When I taught community college as an adjunct over twenty years ago, we received repeated memoranda reminding us to drop students from the roster if they missed two classes.
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