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2017 October 3 - 09:16 am

Could Sky Be the Limit for Trial Balloons?

The southern Spanish region of Catalonia wants to be independent of its adjacent land. The Kurds of northeastern Iraq wish to govern themselves separately from the rest of Iraq. Canadian Quebecers argue regularly about whether or not they should stand alone, separate from the rest of Canada, and Scottish voters have been wondering why and how a move for more independence from Great Britain might help them to retain European ties that the “Brexit” vote has put in jeopardy. 

And as I sit here in southern California, on the west coast of America, I read other not-so-humorous suggestions proposed by politicians in my state that it retain itself apart from American federal government decisions to ban immigration to this place from certain other lands, that it fight federalism on a number of fronts, even that it separate itself from the rest of the United States. 

And I see how, off the “other” coast of this country, in a place whose name cites its wealth of natural beauty, Puerto Ricans have neither electricity nor water, neither homes nor help. A friend of mine, a professional photographer who has traveled the world for his work, calls the situation in Puerto Rico “a more than double whammy against a third-world country with kind and friendly people who have always been on a delicate balance eking out existence.” Any disturbance to the delicacy in that balance, my friend says, wreaks havoc of a kind unknown in our big country not so far away. “We are Americans!” shout some of the Puerto Ricans seeking more help from us, their big brothers. Indeed, these islanders add, “we should be counted as America’s 51st state!” Even in 2013, the American Congress was considering such a thing, although current animosity might be changing minds.

And how do our minds change, I wonder? How do we begin to support a cause and then abandon it? What makes us hold to solidarity, to togetherness, one moment, and then fight for our independence, to go it alone, the next?

Even in our world of community college governance, we experience world politics writ small.

At one of the several community colleges where I work, courses in some subjects are no longer to be offered, state the school’s administrators, because a sister college offers them. “We do not want to duplicate the effort,” one dean said to me, when I proposed a new curriculum in journalism. “Besides,” the dean continued, “journalism is dying.” I gave a quizzical look to this dean, who was at least hearing me out in a way most administrators do not do with a part-timer who is assumed incapable of knowing the difficulties financial and organizational of launching something new in an era when things are being subtracted, rather than added, to our curriculum. “But don’t you think,” I protested, “that with all the discussion of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative truth’, with the popularity of blogs and ‘the citizen press’, the insertion of subjectivity into a realm of once-respected objectivity, it might be exactly the time when students should learn how to discern?” 

The answer: A kind of twisted facial expression, accompanied by a sigh.

And this kind of response is, according to a Ukrainian friend of mine, just the sort of thing that riles, that provokes antagonism, that makes people want to go it alone. 

And it may be, I suppose, particularly in our current era of shared remarks on social media, remarks whose validity the philosopher colleague of mine would surely question, also the sort of thing that can push the pendulum from left to right and then from right to left again in a way that we humans seem somehow to enjoy. 

Governments slide from left to right to left, countries want independence or dependence, children want to break out on their own or to stay within their familial comfort zone, and community colleges wish to distinguish themselves from others independently or to fuse with four-year schools and with high schools. And then, some time later, things reverse.

And what of the citizens governed by the governments in question? What of the people in the places where independence or dependence has become a question? What of the families whose finances are ever-more-stretched to continue to feed and clothe and care for adult children who may have children of their own? What of the students who would choose a community college for its uniqueness, rather than for its mimickry of its four-year big brethren or for its mere extension of what they thought they may have finally finalized in high school? 

Connecting all these processes may seem odd to some who are reading this, but one of my favorite things to do is to connect, to see resonances from big to small to smaller and then out into the beyond. I have always believed, after all, that we at the community college represent a community unlike others: we have to be flexible, if not opportunistic. If our socioeconomic environment is being defined, if not decided, by people who believe in alternative truths or in fakery, I believe that it is time for us to respond, just as we have been able to alter our arts programs (we now have digital art and computer graphics in rooms that once housed pencil drawing) and our languages (we teach Vietnamese where once we taught Swedish and Danish, and our history, we teach specialized courses on the Middle East where once it was only Western Europe that concerned us.) We must at once respond to our community needs and retain a vision that balances a strong academically oriented past with a visionary future.

How can we do this best? By communicating and by responding to one another, with one another. If we are so flexible, let’s try some trial balloonery: Offer that new course in a different subject, and see what happens. Just maybe some students will sign up and stay with us, and that would keep us in our community and make our colleges at once relevant and strong. 

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