By Keith Kroll
“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.”
-Community College president
As I walk down the main hallway on my campus, Kalamazoo Valley Community College (KVCC), I pass a large glass display case containing photographs and memorabilia celebrating the college’s 50th year anniversary. Founded in 1967, during the heyday of community college expansion, KVCC began classes in the fall of 1968.
The most prominent photograph (see below)—the one that always grabs my attention—shows students holding the college’s president on their shoulders (in a pose reminiscent of football players carrying a coach off the field following a stunning victory); other students hold signs, reading “Trust the Trustees” and “A Better Future Through Better Education[.] KVCC”
The brochure accompanying the display states:
From the beginning, it was clear that something very unique was happening at Kalamazoo Valley. In the late 1960s, while college campuses boiled with anti-war, and even anti-establishment protests, in contrast, Kalamazoo Valley made national news, when on April 15, 1969, students staged a pro-administration rally, complete with “Lake is No Fake” and “Cool School” signs. (50 Years)
In other words, during a period remarkable for widespread campus student protests against American involvement in Vietnam, students at KVCC publicly celebrated “the establishment“ (the administration and the board of trustees and, indirectly, those who supported the war). Each time I look at the photograph two questions come to mind: (1) Why weren’t the students publicly protesting a war being fought by soldiers that often came from the same poor and working-class demographic? (2) Why weren’t there (even) more instances of student activism on my campus and on community college campuses around the country?
During my time at KVCC, there have been a handful of student protests. The most recent two occurred response to the board of trustees approving an increase in fees to use the campus wellness center and approving a substantial increase in tuition. Student protest signs should read “Don’t Trust the Trustees.”
City Colleges of Chicago has a history of student campus activism, particularly among Black students. In 2012, Santa Monica College students were pepper-sprayed while protesting the board of trustees plan to raise course fees for popular classes. More recently, in December of 2017, students who attend St Louis Community College campuses protested faculty layoffs during a board of trustees meeting, and a student is currently suing an Illinois community college alleging her right to free speech was violated. But for the most part, community college campuses don’t appear to experience much student activism.
My immediate answer to the questions raised by the photograph was that community college students aren’t involved in campus activism do to what Doug McAdam describes as “Biographical Availability”:
In the context of social activism, biographical availability refers to the “absence of personal constraints that may increase the costs and risks of movement participation, such as full-time employment, marriage, and family responsibilities” (McAdam 1986: 70). Individuals who have spouses, children, or less time-flexible occupations are expected to be less willing and likely to participate in collective action because familial and occupational commitments can reduce the amount of time and energy available for activism and increase the risks associated with it. (In Beyerlein, K. and Bergstrand, K. 2013. Biographical Availability. The Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Social and Political Movements. )
To a great extent, McAdam is describing community college students. Community college campuses are (most) often commuter schools, so students attend classes and leave. Very few students—despite the salutary effects of being on campus—spend much time on campus beyond attending classes. Other than cohorts of students in defined programs, for example, nursing or dental hygiene, or, most importantly, in classrooms, students spend little time in groups. Community college students work; a large percentage attend part-time (and schedule their courses two days a week so that they can work the other three days); many have family responsibilities. In short, as McAdam’s points out, activism requires time—perhaps the one thing community college students seem to have little of.
I was also quick to blame students for their lack of social activism on campus. Along with being too busy, I reasoned they are basically apathetic towards politics and social issues, spending too much time on their phones and social media—as evidence one only need to walk down the hallway of any community college and observe students waiting for their next class.
But then I came across a piece in USA Today titled “Is this the Golden Age of College Student Activism?” which argued that student activism on college campuses is actually on the rise. An earlier The Atlantic piece, “The Renaissance of Student Activism,” made a similar argument. Perhaps college students weren’t as politically apathetic as I first imagined.
“The American Student Protest Timeline, 2014-15,” lists numerous campus protests, many in response to the August 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. But only one community college is included on the timeline, and, interestingly enough, it is not St Louis Community College-Florissant Valley (St Louis CC-FV)—the college closest to Ferguson. An Inside Higher Education article about St Louis CC-FV titled “Ferguson’s College Refuge” provided an answer: rather than a site for student activism, St Louis CC-FV was a “safe haven” and a “way out.”
As I read the article, I recognized the narrative used to describe St Louis CC-FV: it was very much the same narrative told by the KVCC photograph from 1969. The narrative—despite the marketing department claim that it was “unique—was not unique at all. In fact, “trust the trustees,” trust the establishment, trust those in power, don’t question authority, the community college as a “safe haven” and a “way out” are all parts of the same grand narrative of the community college. The community college is, according to the narrative, “Democracy’s College.” To use the (propagandistic) language of the American Association for Community College’s (AACC) latest report on the future of the 21st-century community college, the community college is about Reclaiming the Dream. But the way to “reclaim the dream,” to be “democracy’s college” is not, as one might expect or as “democracy” demands, through education and citizenship but rather through vocational-technical education (or in 2018’s lingo, “career technical education”).
This grand narrative became a central part of the Obama Administration’s neoliberal education policies in response to the Great Recession: community colleges would be fundamental to the administration’s economic plan to “make America great again”; community colleges and community college students would be asked to save an economic system—one that had rarely been in their favor—from the very establishment who had wrecked it. And the best way for community colleges to accomplish this, and to promote democracy, according to the narrative, was not through education—but through a curriculum focused on job training, on meeting the (supposed) demands of the business community. After all, as the story unfolded, it was not (actually) the economy so much that needed repair as it was the American worker: they lacked the necessary skills needed in the 21st Century workforce. In this way, “Skills-gap” became the leitmotif of the Great Recession. The narrative continues in 2018 with the Trump administration and Secretary of Education Betsy Devos visiting community colleges to announce new job training programs. In fact, the president literally removed any pretense that community colleges provide an education by declaring they should all become “vocational schools.” If Democratic and Republican politicians agree on one thing, it is this: community colleges are job-training centers.
Any curriculum not related to job training should be diminished or cut. Kentucky’s governor, while drastically reducing higher education funding in the state—a central tenet of neoliberal policy involves defunding higher education—has repeatedly called for colleges to cut disciplines and programs that don’t directly lead to jobs. The AACC’s Reclaiming the Dream states, the community colleges should “find ways to align programs and degree offerings more closely with labor-market demand. . . .” (11). In response to such pronouncements and policies, KVCC’s AAS (“go-to-work”) degree is now promoted to the detriment of (general) education, the very courses where students might learn to not trust the trustees, to actually question authority. That is, students in various AAS programs no longer need to take courses in biology, chemistry, economics, foreign languages, geology, geography, history, humanities, philosophy, physics, political science, psychology, and sociology. (Fourteen faculty members of the college’s Academic Leadership Council voted in favor of the cuts. Three faculty members, including the head of the welding program, voted against the cuts.) The English department fought to keep college writing as a requirement. (As the college president asked at a college-wide faculty meeting in 2007, Why do auto techs and welders need to learn to write?) The argument that saved it had nothing to do with teaching students to express their ideas (with clarity and grace) in writing but had everything to do with students needing to learn documentation. In other words, if a particular course does not have a utilitarian purpose directly related to job training, it’s no longer of value.
The grand narrative of “Democracy’s College” tells students they don’t need an education; they need training. In Digital Diploma Mills, David F. Noble describes the distinction between training and education this way:
In essence, training involves the honing of a person’s mind so that his or her mind can be used for the purposes of someone other than that person. . . . Education is the exact opposite of training in that it entails not the disassociation bu the utter integration of knowledge and the self, in a word, self-knowledge. (2)
Under the guise of training, democracy is defined in economic terms, and community college students are repeatedly told that the sole purpose of schooling is “to get a job.”
Those of us who teach in the community college and critically examine the community college know this narrative to be fundamentally a myth. That’s not so say that community colleges aren’t without their student success stories—the community college version of the Oprah-Winfrey myth—which the AACC, politicians, and administrators are quick to retell. Student X, despite coming from a disadvantaged background, attending a failing public school, working two part-time jobs, suffering from food insecurity and, at times, homelessness, and after being laid off from their factory job, is attending the local community college to get (re)trained or has gotten retrained and is now productive member of society. Student X gets trotted out each time a politician visits the campus to announce a new job (re)training program. (Disclosure: I graduated from a community college, but I have come to realize my success at the community college had little to with the community college and much more to do with my privileged background.) What’s never asked, of course, is why Student X’s public school was so underfunded, or why Student X had to work two jobs while in school, or why, as a society, we would allow any person to suffer from food insecurity or to be homeless, or why Student X was laid off, or why was the factory closed. To ask these questions would be to reveal the mythical nature of the narrative and to expose the real nature of the current economic system.
The data on community colleges across the country exposes the falsehood of the grand narrative. The reality is poor retention, abysmal graduation rates, low transfer rates, and failed job (re)training. For example, the “refuge” that is St Louis CC-FV has a “graduation rate [of] 6.4 percent [. . . ]. And 19 percent of Florissant Valley students transfer to a four-year institution. . . .” These numbers do not suggest “a way out.” As numerous community college scholars have argued, the community college is much more about maintaining social stratification than it is about promoting economic advancement.
Another answer, then, to why KVCC students would carry a president on their shoulders and carry signs that read “Trust the Trustees” is this: Community college students are rarely offered a curriculum, a critical literacy, that promotes social agency; that provides students the opportunity to express their opinions and find their voice; that teaches them to reflect, to ask questions, to know, and to resist, rather then simply accept the local, state, and national world in which they live; that teaches them what it means to be actively engaged citizens, to question the establishment. Sadly, too much of the teaching in community colleges falls short of this. Instead, students are taught to “trust the trustees.”
In his study of community college teaching, Honored But Invisible, Grubb wrote, “a central conclusion of this book is that many community colleges as institutions pay little attention to teaching [. . .] (2), and that the teaching that does occur is often teacher-centered with little attention to critical literacy. For example, Grubb found that occupational instructors very rarely critique the notion of work:
Implicitly instructors emphasize the role of occupational education as a means of conveying the expectations of employers. They are preparing workers to function in an accepting mold—“punctuality, being there, doing the very best they can, willing to learn”—not workers as citizens who might have something to say about the conditions of their work. (130, my emphasis).
As Ira Shor wrote in Culture Wars, “Trade-school pedagogy is the most anti-intellectual and depoliticized form of education” ( 17). Furthermore, the 2008 Community College Survey of Student Engagement: Essential Elements of Engagement reported that with respect to critical thinking 64% of respondents reported that “quite a bit or very much” of their coursework emphasized rote memory” (14). The Community College Survey of Student Engagement reports that community college classrooms are often lecture-oriented with little in-class writing or experiential learning (18). From what I have observed on my campus, I would agree: a teacher lecturing at the front of a classroom — Freire’s “banking” model—appears to be the dominant mode of instruction. When I tell my writing students one reason they need to learn to write—my one concession to English as “service” department—is in order to write well in their other courses, they generally laugh at me.
As the community college moves closer and closer to a job-training center that resembles a (for-profit) trade school rather than an educational institution, critical literacy will all but vanish.
To prevent this extinction, community college faculty must offer a counter-narrative that promotes education and critical literacy in the classroom. On community college campuses, “the classroom may be the only place students interact with one another and with faculty, the only place where they can be effectively engaged in learning” (2). In other words, the classroom is one of the last spaces where what it means to be an actively-engaged citizen can be fostered; where not trusting the trustees can be discussed; where questioning authority and offering anti-establishment views can be encountered. The critical pedagogy that provides the theoretical framework for such a classroom is readily available in the work of Freire, Shor, bell hooks, Bradley J. Porfilio, Henry Giroux, and many other scholars. Barry Alford, on this site, describes the critical literacy possible in a composition classroom. (Alford’s composition classroom looks nothing like the English 1A I took at the community college, which taught the five-paragraph essay and (misused) rhetorical strategies—the comparison and contrast essay, the definition essay, etc.) In my American literature courses, I encourage my students to make connections between the texts we read and discuss, for example John Winthrop’s idea of “a “City upon a hill”—a phrase oft repeated by current politicians in describing America—and the country in which they live, and to investigate the ideology evident in those texts. Rather than simply regurgitate facts and fill in boxes on a Scantron sheet, students produce interesting and thoughtful writing with titles such as “Is the Slavery Part Left Out Because Nicholas Cage Stole It? A Response to Jefferson,” “What Am I to Think? A Letter to Thomas Jefferson,” and “Nationalism versus the Self: Reading Howells’s ‘Editha’ in current American society. “ (Yes, my pedagogy is political, but so, too, is the course that asks students to regurgitate facts and to fill in Scantron boxes. Despite Stanley Fish’s protestations to the contrary, pedagogy is political.)
The challenge to such a critical pedagogy, which offers a counter-narrative, arises from the realization that it requires community college faculty to be subversive: to resist the neoliberal education policy that makes community colleges job training centers, vocational schools, or credentialing mills. It requires community college faculty to resist the idea of the community college student as an economic commodity.
Such subversiveness, however, is not easy. After teaching at a community college for thirty-two years, I believe they are generally conservative institutions, where administrators, faculty, staff, and students too readily accept their place as second best. It requires tenured faculty to be subversive within the very institution and economic system from which they benefit—no easy task. For faculty who teach writing, it requires resisting the idea of English solely as a “service” department, whose purpose is utilitarian.
Subversiveness is in short supply for a variety of other reasons as well.
A large percentage of community college faculty teach part-time and work under precarious conditions: low pay, one-semester contracts, no role in faculty governance, and often without union representation. The last thing they want to do is subvert college policies, which could lead to losing their jobs. Moreover, the community college’s continued growth in online education—despite research that such courses have lower retention rates than face-to-face courses—and the concomitant disappearance of students and faculty from campus reduces the opportunity for meaningful student-teacher interaction both inside and outside the classroom.
The community college’s current fascination with “Guided Pathways” will further erode general education courses and narrow students’ opportunities for exploration and discovery, as they are tracked into (meta-) majors and limited in taking courses outside their major. Current financial aid rules may limit students—as it did for one of my former students— in career programs from taking courses not directly related to training. For example, if a student is in a welding program, then there’s no place for an American literature course—the argument being welders don’t need to read, discuss, and write about literature: It has no utilitarian or economic benefit.
I am not arguing that community colleges outright reject job (re)training as a part of its mission. It would be naïve to do so. Community college students attend college to get a job, or, more likely, to get a better job. It would also be naïve to believe that critical literacy will somehow result in (all) community students becoming outstanding citizens and/or engaging in social activism (on or off campus). After all, John Yoo, with a liberal arts degree from Harvard University, wrote the “Torture Memos.”
While I originally despised the photograph in the display case, I have come to appreciate it as a stark reminder of what is required of me each day I walk into the classroom, whether teaching writing or literature. What is required of me—what is required of all community college teachers no matter their discipline or program— is to offer a critical literacy that encourages students to read, write, and/or discuss topics that explore the conditions of their lives and the world in which they/we live; and to help them learn to better negotiate that world—even if that simply means a former student approaching me in the hallway to tell me how good she felt to understand the newspaper headline “Dream Accomplished” (published the day after Barack Obama’s election in 2008) within the context of Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun and Hughes’s”Dream Deferred” (two texts we had read, discussed, and written about in a previous semester).
Grubb, W. Norton and Associates. Honored But Invisible. New York: Routledge, 1999.
Noble, David F. Digital Diploma Mills. New York: Monthly Review P, 2002.
50 Years. Kalamazoo Valley Community College. Kalamazoo. KVCC, 2016.
Shor, Ira. Culture Wars. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1992.
Keith Kroll has taught in the English Department at Kalamazoo Valley Community College since 1986.