Saturday, September 19, 2009

Living in community

You could say that the community college image took a bit of a pasting this week from the combination of a new commedy, Community, on NBC and a lengthy expose of its students struggling with remedial classes in the Tribune. Although the TV show was less about the college than its clueless, venal inhabitants, the producers would never have set the show in a "real" college, although they could find some, Chicago State comes to mind, that would easily qualify. Within the opening minute, the community college's students are identified as losers, drop-outs, divorcees and old people; the lone faculty member in the show (English as it happens) is a drunken wastrel (at least I don't keep open wine bottles on the desk), seemingly prepared to trade exam answers for a decent car - there's a thought... It was quite funny at points, though overall it appeared to have been written in a bit of a rush by teenagers.

The community college shares something in common with the Catholic church's view of the afterlife in that both have purgatory. In the latter, as I divined from reading Dante's book on the subject (Incidentally, I found the books to be increasingly less interesting as one progressed from the Inferno to Paradiso.) the soul spends an apparently unlimited amount of time having the sins purged away using methods unlikely to be found at a spa or even a rehab clinic.

The community college version of purgatory is the more earthly nightmare known as remedial math. In remedial classes, the students have their ambitions agonizingly licked away by the flames of the hot coals of the math placement test. For some, this experience may last an eternity; falling short consigns one to the dustbin of the remedial math classes that do not generate any college credit. For many, the razor blade must seem like a tempting alternative. The article in the paper showed a tearful student celebrating her passing the placement test after hiring a tutor and all-night cramming. Wait a minute: the student's name is Stacey Wolf and she was in my chemistry class in fall 2005! Four years on she was still bashing away trying to pass this math test in order to begin the nursing program. I remember Stacey. I would characterize her as a bright student, cheerful, hard-working and enthusiastic, not by any stretch of the imagination the "loser" that the image generated by struggling with math at community college engenders.

Two questions come to mind. Is the vast army of shades clanking their chains in the 156 sections (that's about 4,000 people give or take) of the various remedial math classes on offer at COD the fault of the community college? Secondly, is too much emphasis placed on the need to pass these math classes in the first place? The second may sound sacrilegious, particularly coming from a practitioner of the physical sciences.

In answer to the first, the fault, if fault it is, lies not with the college but with the high school system that sends its charges out into the college world woefully unprepared to succeed. We can say the same about the high school's preparation for any of the sciences; the standards are just not up to snuff. They say it is not the raw material; students enter the high school system with the same abilities as those from other parts of the civilized globe. They leave it trailing by some margin. What transpired (or not) during those four years to cause the deficiency? Perhaps it has something to do with the teachers? Here is rich irony: I am qualified to teach the teachers, but unqualified to teach the high-school students. In terms of technical content, a person may become a "science" teacher by taking one term of an introductory level community college chemistry class. That seems somehow amiss.

Maybe there is something wrong with the premises that everyone can succeed in math and that everyone must go to college these days. While doubtless a university degree is a good preparation for a successful career, surely it cannot be that this is the future for everyone. For many, their successful career will revolve around relatively unskilled jobs for which no university education is required. Is there not a little disingenuity in establishing unncessarily elevated qualifications for jobs these days (BS in business management to serve at McDonalds for instance)? So why encourage people who are fundamentally unsuited to the task to waste their time in the fruitless pursuit of university education? Is this not driven, at least in part, by the slightly underhand urge of institutions to boost their enrollments and grow in importance?

At least in Illinois, part of the problem is the need to pass a college-level algebra class in order to meet the general education requirements of even just an associate's degree in the arts. Is this justified? I am quite confident that millions of people are leading meaningful, successful, fulfilling careers who could not begin to solve a pair of simultaneous equations; people who would be reduced to gibbering ruins at the very mention of the dreaded letters "x" and "y." I am one of the lucky ones that delights in all manifestation of the simultaneous equation; I have never had a fear of it. I admit to falling short in appreciating fully how x's and y's spell death to many. Yet I know someone who does. Quite well in fact. In all other aspects she is intelligent and accomplished. Yet to her, the math placement test imbues greater foreboding than the prospect of childbirth; it looms as an insurmountable barrier to the completion of a degree. Even to a math lover this doesn't seem entirely right. Meanwhile the college corridors groan with the sound of remedial math students' suffering; and the bookstore shelves bend under the weight of piles of expensive math books. A tidy profit for some.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Haven't we this conversation before? But that's OK, it's one of my favorite rants.