It’s hot. It’s really hot. Indoors at home here in California, where I do much of my work for four different institutions—next week, it will be five—it is 87 degrees in the “coolest” room of my house. In the small office at the college where I work most, where the air conditioning stops at night and on the weekends, just when most of us part-timers show up to work, it is in the mid-90’s.
I went to see Al Gore’s latest called “An Inconvenient Sequel” a couple of weeks ago, shortly before our current heat wave and before Hurricane Harvey hit Texas and Louisiana. The film noted that extreme temperatures are predicted to plague us ever more frequently and fiercely as the twenty-first century progresses.
And all around me, classes are beginning for the fall term, football teams are rushing onto hot turf, and baseball’s boys of summer are giving way to their fellow experts in indoor sports.
But my mind has trouble manipulating much. It is still hot.
And as a partisan of part-time life at various community colleges implanted in varying communities, I look at enrollment numbers and course offerings, syllabi and proposed “student learning outcomes.” I notice that, once again, as has been the case for much of this second decade of the 21st Century, enrollment in our “educational sector” is down.
In June, 2016, CNN Money reported that Illinois purse-string holders were starving the state’s public colleges and universities, leading to enrollment drops. A 2017 report from Michigan’s community colleges shows 22 of 27 institutions cited to have reported lower “head counts” this year than were reported in fall 2016. In California, long considered the community college bellwether, policies have been in place since the late 1970’s and early 1980’s that remain difficult for us at the community college to overcome: “out-of-control spending” in that era was claimed to have made community colleges into “educationally questionable” centers for all kinds of odd courses (e.g., belly dancing, pet care, and toilet training were cited, among others), and the public attitude toward the community college plunged into a well of disrepute.
And so, as I swelter at home working for my employers at the community college, I think yet again about the promise, the dream, the concept, the mindset that was once inherent in the community college, and I hope that it will return.
I have been working at these community colleges—always part-time, of course—for more than half a century, during which I have seen courses and programs come and go. And I wonder what has happened to an entire program in international business at one of the places where I still work, an institutional sub-curriculum complete with certificates and entrées into foreign institutions, as well as coordinated degree-granting from a California state university nearby. I wonder what happened to the Earth Sciences that included geology and geography, oceanography, ecology, and meteorology, as well as astronomy and astrophysics. I wonder about another institution’s idea to put together welding and metal shop, metallurgy, physics, car repair, mechanical engineering, draughting, and CAD to give students well-rounded knowledge about how automobiles and our new “self-driving cars” might best be made for our roads and how they might best fit into our state’s future infrastructure. I wonder about united programs in physical education and body mechanics, nutrition, chemistry, physiology, biology, and evolution, a mixture of courses that I recall from my days in graduate school at Indiana University, where “HPER” (Health Physical Education and Recreation) gave learners solid grist with which to run their fellows along exercise treadmills. I wonder about my own rejected proposal that our college become a center of international awareness, with “language pods” including Arabic and Farsi; Polish, Russian, and Czech; Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish; French, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese; Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese. All of these would have a theoretical background in basic linguistics, my own specialty. The idea went nowhere, just as the aforementioned curricula have crumbled.
I have a friend at one of the community colleges where I work who reminds me that each institution has at least one brilliant light that we must cultivate, that we must nurture, and that we hope will shine into the rest of the school so that it will move forward flexibly and brightly without wallowing in its statistical bog of negative numbers that lead to even more anti-educationsim in the society surrounding us. My friend is spearheading programs that join art and the digital, studies in color and design and draughting, mechanics and computer programming, the structure of machines and their possibilities, certification with big businesses and integration into institutional curricula from Illinois Trade Tech and California State University, among others. I advised him that he might want to include “soft” studies as well, including language and culture, social science and business psychology, human-machine interaction study and interface design analysis and synthesis. Make this idea really cross-curricular, cross-theoretical, integrative, I suggested. I pointed out to him that yes, these are suggestions coming from my own biases, of course, but they are also important: If one is to negotiate with an international partner in a global marketplace, one should know how that partner communicates. One joke favored among linguists is that it takes not much to buy something from someone in another country--money will suffice—but if one wishes to sell, he really should know the language of the other to whom he would sell.
And so, who knows what will come of our courses and programs this semester? Who knows what will be slashed and what retained? Who knows which brilliant ideas will remain?
September is young, the new school year is ramping up, football players are marching onto fields preened for play, and I hope that people like my friend will be able to give our community college the glowing idea that we can and should keep thinking, keep imagining, keep uniting programs and ideas. As I sit here under the heat blanket of our way-too-warm weekend, I think, too, about how we at the community college are probably best placed to live Al Gore’s mantra and to put it into effect: Integrate innovation.