Two-year college students as smart as me

Jay Mathews
Columnist September 16, 2012

Prof. Mike Rose of UCLA thinks and writes about remedial education. He has detected, beneath the happy talk of increasing achievement and changing lives, a troubling disdain for students trying to find their way in two-year community colleges.

In his latest book, “Back To School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education,” he cites the example of a philosophy professor who quipped that “his students weren’t fit to sweep out the Augean stables,” a reference to Hercules’ fifth labor. Shame on the professor. Hercules did not get rid of all that cattle dung through demeaning work with a broom. He accomplished the task “with great ingenuity,” Rose notes, by rerouting two rivers.

Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years. View Archive

Community college students are seeking job skills, Rose says, but they are also capable of subtle, critical, imaginative thinking. Many of them are as excited as I was, at my brand-name four-year private college, to be part of an academy of scholars. Yet community colleges and other remedial programs — including many in this area — often fail to appreciate that desire for depth and breadth. And education writers like me wrongly ignore such schools as unimportant.

Rose’s book is thoughtful and surprising. He describes Bobby, enrolled in his two-year college’s welding program after an early life of drugs and jail. Bobby displays a love of writing, an interest in leadership in his elected position with the campus chapter of the American Welding Society, and a talent for detecting different styles and periods in the art history class he must take to meet his general education requirement.

Bobby has acquired a new sense of himself at least as important as the job skills and credentials he seeks. “He’s found solidity at the college, a grounding that frees him up in a way that he never knew on the streets,” Rose says. “Yes, he’s eager to finish up here and transfer to a four-year school, but he’s taking it all in along the way — leadership, essays, museums.”

Rose bristles at the way experts talk about students who drop out of community college programs. “What I’ve seen with some frequency is that people will leave once they develop sufficient skill to get a job,” he says. “This has a positive economic impact [but] . . . is often cited as an illustration of poor people’s inability to delay gratification and form long-term goals. . . . In my experience, most of the people taking those immediate jobs do so because the rent is due, children need to be fed, members of the family are sick. . . . We have such demeaning ways of talking about the choices poor people have to make when the wolf is at their door.”

The assumption is that such students are like patients with congenital diseases. This mind-set has a long history and weakens teaching, Rose says. In the 1930s, college remedial classes were called “sick sections.” My high school friends who flunked a college placement test in the 1960s had to take what everyone called “Bonehead English.”

In such an environment, “reading, writing and mathematics . . . become narrow, mechanical pursuits, stripped of fuller meaning,” Rose says. “Students will define ‘good writing’ as not making grammatical mistakes.”

The trend is toward more of the same, at least in remedial classes. Innovators see salvation in computer programs that break the great disciplines of math, science, reading and writing into little pieces, teaching through short lessons and shorter multiple-choice exam questions.

Rose wants to go in the opposite direction. His heroes are college teachers who show students how to read textbooks, study and prepare for exams and then help them enjoy the best of a liberal education. One imaginative instructor, John Chaffee of LaGuardia Community College in Queens, created a series of philosophy and critical-thinking courses that draws 4,500 eager students every year.

Professors like that don’t think they are more worthy of respect than their students.

For previous Mathews columns, go to washingtonpost.com/blogs/
class-struggle
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