Roughly 11 years after the Great Recession, the social and economic inequality of the U.S. has been laid bare by a pandemic. This time, however, there is no skills gap to blame for job losses and unemployment: Workers in all sectors of the workforce are losing jobs and careers. As a result, community college students — 35 percent of undergraduates, including a high percentage of low-income and non-white students — who have followed expedited and limited curricula to a place in the existing economy, have found themselves, again, at the whims of the economic, political and cultural interests that have little concern for their future role in determining what we do next. They also face cultural and political crises that call into question the very idea of what it means to live in a democracy.
As the pandemic ravages the country, it’s been business as usual for too many community college leaders and politicians. Politicians propose more job (re)training. The American Workforce Policy Advisory Board, co-chaired by U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Ivanka Trump, offers plans to re-skill displaced workers by offering “better access to online tools and remote learning” and by involving businesses in assisting community colleges with designing curricula for job (re)training. Community college leaders call for much the same. Monty Sullivan, president of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System, stated that as community colleges emerge from the pandemic, “[i]t’s especially important for two-year colleges to continue training ‘essential’ workers.” Using the language of the ongoing pandemic, students are now “essential” or “human capital stock” with dwindling rights and protections. What these groups deny or fail to grasp is that we are living in a failed state.
The economy that students have been rushed into has collapsed and the “education” they received has done little to prepare them. They live in a country more than willing to send them off to work without concerns for their health while the wealth of billionaires increases. More job (re)training for jobs that can disappear overnight or forever is not the answer to the systemic inequality and social upheaval in a country that is tipping into chaos. While students struggle to make ends meet, community college leaders treat the moment as a minor pause instead of a challenge of citizenship and creativity.
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There has been little or no thought given to the role these students would play, or that through their labor and activism, they might change the world instead of being another “brick in the wall.” As a former community college president (who served as an adviser to the Obama administration during the Great Recession) described it, “Macomb [Community College] is working with the federal government and other community colleges to better prepare students for the world that exists, not the world they want to live in.” This thinking perpetuates the misbelief that technocracy is stable and self-sustaining, and that the best that community college students can hope for is to find a slot in the economy that is skilled enough to elevate them out of menial labor.
It was always dishonest to portray career and technical education (CTE) as “enough” for these students, leaving them at the mercy of economic and cultural forces that saw them as first marginal and now disposable. Continued economic and social inequality and the lack of consideration for their needs and protection is now clear. We should take this moment to do more than fine tune the online programs we use to remotely teach our students, and ask what skills they need to survive on their own terms.
What our students require is not more (re)training and technical skill but the education that prepares them with the historical, narrative, and dialogical perspectives they need to fend for themselves when the technocracy crashes and burns; to advocate for their own rights and living conditions — their own agency.
Amid the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic and the future direction of higher education, community colleges have a role — but not as a “nouveau college” so closely aligned with workforce training that it resembles a defunct for-profit Corinthian College more than an educational institution. Rather, there exists the opportunity for community colleges to re-envision their mission, to reclaim the ideals expressed in the report titled “Higher Education For American Democracy” (also known as the Truman Commission Report).
After World War II, the Truman Commission identified community colleges as “laboratories” of democracy and argued that community college students deserved an education that prepared them for citizenship in a democracy: “Equal opportunity for all persons, to the maximum of their individual abilities and without regard to economic status, race, creed, color, sex, national origin, or ancestry is a major goal of American democracy.” The current crises show how little of that promise and potential has been realized. If democracy is going to become equitable, multicultural and multiracial, which it must do to survive, students need to learn how to create and live in that new world. Now is the time to rethink and revitalize the linkage between education and democracy, and in the process, to reintegrate and rearrange the balance in the community college curriculum of different disciplines, pedagogues and areas of knowledge.
Historically we have treated democracy as a formal arrangement of institutions, laws and protocols. The COVID-19 pandemic, coming as it has during an administration not much interested in institutions, laws and protocols, has made it painfully clear that democracy requires more. With respect to education, it requires a renewed inquiry — to use educational reformer John Dewey’s term — into what we know and what we seek to become. In Democracy and Education (1916), Dewey argued that education was a critical link to expanding and realizing our democratic potential. His focus on inquiry was not to review what we already know or to strengthen existing orthodoxy, but to challenge us to think about what we don’t know or how our current approach is too limiting and too exclusive.
The humanities should be the site of that inquiry — not to privilege what has been done but to do what needs to be done. A call for more humanities is a call for a New Humanities, one less concerned with canonical assumptions and more directed toward how this narrative of cultural development has failed; one that moves from teaching the canon to inquiry-based dialogues about cultural narratives. As Susan Searls Giroux writes in Take Back Higher Education, “We have to open up rather than close down our classrooms to dialogue and debate over contemporary issues and hot-button topics that most concern our students.” A New Humanities must teach students how to engage in dialogue, create historical and cultural perspective, and to engage in the hard work of making a government that is fair and inclusive.
Schools can’t do this on their own, but they must be a part of it. Democracy is not natural. It is hard work: We have to learn how to do this work through practice and modeling. Teaching people to accept a cultural, political and economic reality dictated by an elite to “just to get a job” is exposed as the con it is during these crises. As narratives about the U.S. are being challenged and are more open to critique than at any time in the last 50 years, the humanities become a method and a forum for remaking the country.
There is nothing in CTE or STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) curricula that will guide or inform the hard ethical decisions and value choices we face. Doctors in Wuhan, Milan or New York City deciding who gets intubated and who doesn’t is not a technical problem; it is an ethical one. The divisions in our society exposed and intensified in the current crises can only be addressed and healed in a dialogue that includes members of society who have not traditionally had a voice in such conversations, including community college students, who are often members of the most marginalized groups. Even the more local and mundane issues around what “learning” means now that we’ve all been forced out of our normal routines is going to require a conversation about more than what app works best for virtual meetings.
The humanities have a role to play in not only reframing the curriculum but in restructuring our ideas about the 21st-century community college and society at large. The future we should be building is not one of subservience to the demands of business — to an economic system that has never worked in favor of our students — but one of student agency through active participation in a democracy. The question now is not whether or not community colleges will evolve to better fit the emergence of a new social and intellectual challenge; they have no choice. The question is how that evolution will unfold and who and what interests will be served: Students? Democracy? Corporations?
We need options, and we need more inclusive ways of developing and thinking about those options. If we want to move forward as a democracy — an assumption not at all clear at this juncture — then we have to provide an education that models, critiques and contextualizes the neoliberal fantasy of a technocracy that has shaped a curriculum more conducive to the needs of corporate interests than those of our students. After 40 million people applied for unemployment, it is absurd and obscene to tell students that a job is enough. If we’re about to embark on a new political and cultural journey, they deserve a seat at the table and a voice in the discussion.
This might be the last opportunity the community college has to be more than a credentialing agent for corporate simulacra. This is a moment of incredible uncertainty and vulnerability. We should seize it.