Note: This blog was originally published as an Op-Ed in the San Antonio Express-News. I’m republishing it here today because it relates nicely with Learning to Question: A Pedagogy of Liberation, a book I’m reading and one I wrote about in my most recent Pointless Overthinking blog.
I am an American educator. My job is hard, and I sometimes feel like I’m fighting a losing battle.
I manage a writing center at Palo Alto College, one of five campuses that make up the Alamo College system. Our campus is located on the South Side, a part of the city that is said to be poor relative to other parts of San Antonio.
In a former life, I was in the classroom full time. I taught a variety of writing, research, literature and critical thinking classes to university students in America and abroad. Many of the places I taught were considered “selective,” meaning only the very brightest or most well-connected were admitted. Often, their primary purpose in studying at such a university was to get a degree that would help them maintain their privileged position in society. These prestigious institutions of higher learning have historically played a conservative role by educating the next generation of elites, thus ensuring that prevailing class structures remain intact.
Meanwhile, the children of the poor and uneducated don’t often enroll in universities — elite or otherwise. Instead, they immediately go to work rather than attend college, getting trapped in dead-end jobs that pay little more than subsistence wages.
Those of us who’ve left the university and are now working in places like Palo Alto College are part of the revolution. I don’t mean that we are attempting to overthrow the government or anything like that. We are playing important roles in turning things upside down. In a nation where the postsecondary system of education is rigged in favor of the haves, community colleges are set up to serve the have-nots. This makes what we do a bit “subversive.”
Many of those who come to our writing center for help are first-generation college students, meaning they’ve grown up in families where neither of their parents went to college or have degrees. This puts them at a great disadvantage when compared to “continuing generation” students who are reared expecting to attend college because their parents did so. At least one study has argued that first-generation students lack the sort of “cultural capital” needed to understand how higher education works and what one needs to do to survive and thrive in a competitive educational setting. It is my job to help them begin to acquire this capital so they can complete associate degrees, acquire job certification and put down the sort of foundation that will prepare some of them to transfer to universities.
When I begin to feel tired or hopeless at work, I remind myself that I am playing a role, albeit a small one, in helping to affect dramatic change. Many of us know that things are going terribly wrong in this country at this time. A lot of what’s amiss is rooted in the extreme economic inequality that separates the haves from the have-nots. Many of us understand that such a situation, where the income gap continues to widen, is utterly unsustainable and a threat to democracy.
Those who call themselves patriots and believe in democracy need to be supporters of Palo Alto College and institutions like it. Our current system of governance is only possible when we find ways to democratize economics. Educating the masses, and providing them with the tools they need to wrest away some economic power from the few who’ve long had more than their fair share, is a way of ensuring that some modicum of social justice prevails in this country.
What are your thoughts on closing the gap that separates the haves and the have-nots?
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8 thoughts on “Community Colleges Are Helping to Transform America”
Troy, I applaud the work you are doing in the writing center.
I have a very positive opinion of community colleges. I attended community colleges at night, a class or two at a time, for eight years before enrolling in a university full-time and completing my undergraduate degree. I then completed my masters while teaching full-time. In community college, I met many interesting people of all ages and backgrounds. it was a very enriching experience.
Hi, Cheryl. Thanks for the comment. I totally enjoy working with the students I’m currently helping. They are polite, hungry (to learn), and thankful for the opportunity to study. I’ve worked with both rich kids and those who were poor and working class. In general, those in the latter groups were much more pleasant to teach. Thanks for sharing your story.
The greatest force for economic inequality is the increase in automation and AI. More and more jobs are being performed by machines better and cheaper than a human ever could. That means there is going to be fewer jobs, period. The time will come when there is no manual labor and little intellectual labor that cannot be performed more efficiently through AI.
We can already automate the complex decision-making processes of a fighter pilot. One pilot and ten AI wingmen instead of ten aircraft. Automobile factories are run by a hand full of techies and almost no assembly workers. Soon we won’t even need computer coders because we’ve designed systems to do the coding for us.
I call this the Star Trek problem. In the world of Star Trek, nobody actually needs to work. Survival and a basic standard of living are guaranteed. Once you have the system set up, all the production tasks needed to sustain life can be handled by automation. We are approaching this even today. How do we handle all the workers when 90% of human work is no longer needed? When most people who still “produce” are doing so as a hobby – and perhaps most will settle into a hedonistic lifestyle of not producing anything but merely consuming that which is provided?
Will those who still need to work become so jealous of those who don’t that society falls apart? Or will there be insane levels of competition for the few remaining jobs that we need humans to perform?
The transition from a work-based society to a work-optional society will be rough.
Hi, Fred. It seems to me that you’ve just made a very compelling argument in support of the Universal Basic Income movement, don’t you think? By the way, I support such a program and know that pilot programs of this type are being tried out here and there and showing very positive results. If the world is going to make it harder and harder for people to work (through no fault of their own), doesn’t something like guaranteed income balance out the kind of injustice created when robots take over? I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on this matter. Thanks for the comment.
What I am concerned about is that we’ll end up in a bread and circuses situation. Of you don’t have to work, you can imagine some people will make up work just to give themselves a reason to wake up in the morning. But a lot of people will slip into sloth and unstructured hedonism. They don’t need to work and further there is no work to do and they needs something to keep them entratained. I could see a Brave New Word situation emerging.
Love the work of community colleges! It’s the kind of subversiveness we need in this country to challenge the status quo! Great post and great work, Troy!
Hi, Wynne. Let’s empower those who’ve historically been disempowered and close the income gap between the haves and have nots. Doing so would promote more stability, less societal frustration, and help cut down on lots of violent crime. Most people don’t behave antisocially because such behavior turns them on. They do so because they are frustrated and lashing out at a world that seems totally disinterested in their well-being. Am I bleeding heart? Absolutely. I’d rather have a bleeding heart than no heart at all. Thanks for the comment.
I think one of the principle of democracy is indeed reducing the gaps by granting equal opportunities to all. And access to free education is fundamental for granting equal opportunities. Very inspiring post!