Bad News/Good News/Bad News

I could be projecting here,  but it seems to me that 2-year colleges are getting a lot more media attention these days.  The coverage brings bad news or good news by the day, depending on how you see the role of higher ed in America.

On the worrying side of things for me is a growing conservative enthusiasm for sub-baccalaureate education.  These are voices that tell us that “too many” people are going to college these days…these students are apparently wasting their own time and money, and tax dollars that go to colleges and universities,  since they are destined to become blue-collar or service workers unlikely to “make use” of costly bachelor’s degrees.  

When I first heard  Charles Murray’s  claims along these lines a couple of years ago (particularly a talk called “Education Myths,” hosted by the Cato Institute), I blanched but figured he was just going about his usual essentialist and terribly elitist business (after all, in The Bell Curve he and Richard Herrnstein famously made this kind of deeply discriminatory argument many times over).

But other voices are now joining Murray’s.  The New York Times offered us “Plan B: Skip College”  by Jacques Steinberg yesterday, about educators and analysts who share Murray’s distaste for the expenditure of higher-ed resources on citizens they deem to be lesser lights.

Apparently, we can predict that certain folks won’t get much out of a university education, even before they enroll, and we should stop them in their tracks. Plus, America ostensibly needs workers with the less sophisticated, pared down skill sets that efficiently designed, short, vocational training courses of study might provide…Now that’s a nation aiming high!

Steinberg’s piece did acknowledge that those making such arguments are “touching a third rail of the education system” (a choice of words that unfortunately makes anyone who disagrees with the conservatives sound dangerous and shocking, but still…).   The real good news is that innovative educators are today creating  community colleges programs motivated precisely by inclusion.  InsideHigherEd.com offers us “Taking the Long View,”  by David Moltz, describing transfer-oriented technical programs at 2-year colleges. 

I am quoted in that piece, but the valuable lessons it holds are provided by faculty and administrators from Greenfield Community College, in Massachusetts. That school aims to maximize, not minimize, students’ prospects in technical occupations, by gearing them almost exclusively towards preparation for transfer to 4-year engineering programs. 

Requiring more courses, instructors and facilities,  this is a more costly route, indeed, than limiting opportunities of certain demographic groups to trades training or terminal sub-baccalaureate curricula.  But only in a very short-term fiscal sense.  Simply put, transfer-focused agendas at community colleges promise America a workforce of greater productive potential, not to mention diversity,  than we have ever achieved in this country.

Alas, now back to the bad news: Inside Higher Ed reports this morning that community colleges are facing severe cuts in state and local funding, perhaps an unsurprising  byproduct of federal reductions in support for education and other public services  in recent years.  Many of the functions for community colleges that Obama himself has endorsed,  for drawing larger numbers of Americans into higher ed and improving workforce preparedness,  it is clear, are going to have a harder time than ever sustaining themselves.

Backward, oh backward…

An immigrant family works at home, in 1909, but do they work hard enough for David Brooks? from http://ephemeralnewyork.files.wordpress.com/2009/09/cigaretterollers.jpg

Do you supposed David Brooks’ wristwatch runs counter-clockwise? His column in today’s New York Times, “The Limits of Policy,” certainly seems to try to set the clock  back on our understanding of ethnicity and economic equity. The teaser, “How ethnicity swamps politics,” says it all…With amazingly essentialist logic, Brooks tells us that public policy (in which  he includes here everything from public education spending to health care provisions) has “only marginal effects on how we live.” Instead, he says, it is “ethnic, regional and social differences” that bring about drastic differentials in life expectancy and economic standing among  American communities.

Putting aside the circular logic here (tell me again: why shouldn’t we keep striving for better policies?) and convenient breaches in logic altogether (Brooks reports that Asian-Americans do well even in “struggling parts of the country,” but also that “the region you live in makes a gigantic difference in how you will live”), he builds his case on utterly uncritical thinking about how people experience such differences.  He works from the idea that  “cultural attitudes,” “child-rearing practices, ”  and “work ethics” variously foster or limit a given community’s level of health and education. But historians and social scientists have long shown that peoples’ “attitudes,”  “practices,” and “ethics” are not easily distinguished from what they feel to be practical necessity,  and they certainly do not derive in any inevitable way from ethnic identity.

Brandishing crude and selective social analysis,  Brooks appears to cherish cultural pluralism (recommending policies that “fortify emotional bonds” within communities), even while he is attributing poorer communities’ economic marginality to their regrettable value systems.  A quick trip to 1909, anyone?  But Brooks is not entirely lost in century-old social ideas. After all, he commends government efforts to provide basic “economic and physical security” to at-risk communities, as something necessary for the creation of a “culture of achievement” in those communities.  But note: that security is not sufficient in Brooks’ outlook.  Offer a struggling people  security, he adds, and you’ll  only see their achievements increase “if you’re lucky.”

Hackles raised yet?  Upset? Brooks closes with the advice that “we should probably calm down” about “most of the proposals we argue about so ferociously” since they can make little positive difference in the lives of struggling minorities and other impoverished communities around the nation.  Sadly, that one is a timeless American idea.