Summing Up: A Reflection on a Changing Focus at Community Colleges

Emeritus Professor Philosophy Department, Santa Barbara City College

According to recent findings in positive psychology, among the basic elements of individual happiness are love and work1. That is, happiness requires having healthy social relationships and productive, meaningful work. I’ve been blessed on both counts; all the more so because many of my self-sustaining relationships have come from those with whom I have worked and my career at one of California’s community colleges has been deeply rewarding.

That said, over the years, gradually but perceptibly, there has been a change in the culture of the college and how it feels to be a teacher here. I fear this change is occurring on a wider and perhaps national scale. The demands of institutional accountability, dependency on technology, bureaucratic complexity, along with their attendant training, deadlines, paper work, etc., have created a sense of urgency, busy-ness and worry over things-to-be-done that have little or nothing to do with teaching and learning. As one’s sense of time contracts because of urgency, so does one’s consciousness and spirit. As time is filled with busy-ness, opportunity for reflection, collegial interaction, and creative restorative endeavors diminishes. The college feels more and more like a factory of workers trying to meet a production quota than a haven for inquiring minds. Add to this the constant reminder that somehow the faculty can and should be doing better. Then what comes is another wave of improvement workshops driven by a catchy acronym. Ours is becoming a time-impoverished, force-fed, fast-paced culture not conducive to teaching and learning.

At the same time, our students seem increasingly less prepared for and clueless about college level work. Many are shy - not only in the requisite scholastic skills, but more disturbing, in the attitude and motivation that can support them in facing the challenges of learning and inspire them to do their best. We have failed to establish and implement many reasonable course prerequisites for fear of enrollment loss. There is no legitimate dispute about this. I was here when it was made explicit that we simply could not do what we ought to have done.

Instead, we take refuge in the “Skills Advisory” note to students, a caveat designed to protect the college by warning students who, in turn, predictably and routinely ignore the warning in their anxious rush to find courses convenient for their busy schedules. The realization that we would continue to allow students into our courses despite their lack of preparedness for the work was the low point of my career. We invited the inevitable: a loosening of academic standards, grade inflation, and perpetuation of the entitlement mentality of many students. We could have stopped this in its tracks, had we the courage and the will. To be sure, most of our colleges pass accreditation, and rightly so, all things considered; but it seems that in large measure, though the emperor is not stark naked, we are praising his rather threadbare clothes.

California’s Community Colleges are on a “Mission of Excellence.” They also are the “College of Second Chances” – the latter a unique feature of community colleges. These are noble ideals, each worthy of our efforts, each tugging at the other. My worry is that we have been too keen on “serving” our students, which has come at their expense. We need to shift the burden of learning back to them, to serve less and to demand more. This may not be feasible, or even possible, since we seem to have backed ourselves into a corner.

Nevertheless I am an optimist, else I would not have remained in teaching. I also remind myself that it is typical of the “old guard” to think the sky is falling. I believe human beings (as well as institutions) are resilient and the human capital at our colleges is wide and deep. The solutions lie here with our faculty. But they must be protected from conditions that threaten to squander their talents, drain their energy, and dampen their spirits. With the budget crisis as the catalyst, that will be the litmus test for California’s community colleges and for higher education in general. In our legitimate concern to make ends meet, we risk losing sight of the noble ends that we should strive to meet and that ultimately give meaning to our calling.

1See Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis (New York: Basic Books, 2006), Chapter 10