Liberal Arts and the Community

Confessions of a Community College Dean

As a general rule, it’s hard to go too far wrong when reading Tim Burke.  That said, a particularly good sentence in a recent post of his jumped out at me and hasn’t left my head for the better part of a week.  It’s in reference to an older tradition of universities providing free, sustained courses for adults in the community.

“…the idea of liberal education less as an embedded part of a degree that grants a credential which is recognized as a professional qualification to do particular kinds of work and more as an ongoing enterprise that makes more sense in many ways to older people who have lived into their humanity.”

“Who have lived into their humanity.”  That’s just excellent.  It’s vaguely Hegelian, I suppose, but in a good way.  It’s about filling out the outlines of a personality that was always sort of there, but that required experience to become fully itself.  Any parent knows the feeling of watching your kids grow into themselves.  Looking back, you recognize signal moments along the way.  Some of that is purely retrospective sense-making, of course, but not all of it.  One of the rewards of having friends for decades is hearing something new about them and recognizing it as so utterly them.  The tendency was always there; seeing it fulfilled is narratively satisfying.

The broader point, though, is that certain kinds of stories, theories, speculations, and observations land differently with people who’ve been around longer.

I’ve certainly had the experience of re-watching television shows or movies that I first saw in my teens, and that I remembered fondly, only to be horrified or embarrassed at what I saw this time.  The show or movie didn’t change, but I did.

The more embarrassing ones, though, are the ones with which I realize I missed the point (or a really obvious subtext) entirely the first time around.  Some of that was about developing skills as a reader of texts, but some of it was just lack of life experience.

The movie Sixteen Candles is an easy one.  It came out when I was in high school, and I was very much of its demographic.  I remember liking it, finding some parts funny and some sweet.  Molly Ringwald’s vague sense of disquiet was familiar.  As clueless as I was, I remember thinking that the portrait of the Asian exchange student seemed racist, so at least I got that.  (It’s genuinely awful.)  It captured the perspective of middle-class white suburban teenhood so accurately that it even included that perspective’s copious blind spots.  But even some of the more benevolent moments make more sense now.  At the time, I couldn’t understand why Sam’s Dad seemed to encourage her going off with Jake.  After a couple decades of Dad-hood, I get it.  Sixteen-year-old me couldn’t figure it out.  Now, it’s obvious.

When we encourage students to “get their gen eds out of the way,” I think, we tend to encourage facile and superficial interpretations.  I understand why many students are inclined to do that anyway.  Some of it is probably a response to economic pressure, and some a symptom of shaky or uneven high school preparation.  But I think some of it just comes from encountering some of these ideas before having enough life experience for them to resonate.

Burke’s piece discusses an older tradition of universities offering sustained courses, for free, for the adult public.  (That’s as opposed to individual one-off guest speakers.)  It’s a practice that has largely fallen away, as pressures to be ever more fiscally focused tend to squeeze out the “nice to haves.”  It’s worth reconsidering.  That’s not to say we should excuse the young from grappling with these issues, of course; you need to develop those skills somewhere, and at least some things manage actually to sink in.  But to the extent that we send the message that literature, history, philosophy, and the bigger questions are to be relegated to the first two years of college, never to be seen again, we flub a basic cultural obligation.

In the real world, of course, cultural productions and narrative are everywhere.  Movies and shows are more plentiful, and often better, than they’ve ever been.  Online fandoms for various celebrities, teams, or movies can become surprisingly sophisticated, often engaging folks at levels of enthusiastic analysis they probably couldn’t muster for, say, Ethan Frome.  Puffed-up charlatans and purveyors of snake oil have the audiences they do because so many people are struggling to make sense of the world.  They’re doing it wrong, but the hunger is there.

As the journalist Sarah Kendzior put it in reference to politics, in our current society, truth is paywalled but disinformation is free.  Something similar is true of narrative.  Public higher ed – particularly community colleges, given the “community” part of the mission and their geographic ubiquity – is well-positioned to engage with those adults who may not want a formal credential, but who are looking for answers.  They’re out there, and they’ve lived enough life to bring some different perspectives.

Thank you, Professor Burke, for encapsulating an inchoate feeling so succinctly.  There’s good work to be done here.

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Sunday, August 7, 2022
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