Unsentimental education

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“So, do the characters in Flaubert’s novel act in accordance with Kant’s categorical imperative?” I looked around the classroom of my freshman composition students and was greeted with blank stares.

“Who actually read up to page 306?” Two hands went up, one only halfway. Others confessed that they had read only to page 147, or page 20, 72, 3. Some hadn’t even opened Sentimental Education. Why hadn’t they done the assigned reading?

“It’s too long and complicated.”

“There are too many characters, and I can’t even pronounce their names.”

“I don’t understand all the history in this.”

“I haven’t bought the book yet.”

None of this was surprising. In my 15 years of college teaching—half of it at community colleges—my ideas about expanding the minds of my students have been tempered by the realities of my classroom. Many of them are single mothers who work full -time, or formerly incarcerated trying not to screw up their second chance, or traumatized vets, ex-Hasidim, new immigrants. Almost half of them (according to collegewide estimates) have household incomes under $20,000. Many native speakers of English write even worse than the ESL students. That they’re here at all is an achievement. But they still have to do the work.

“OK, please leave. Don’t come back until you’ve done the reading,” I said.

I walked out of the room, calm but frustrated. I was irritated with my students, with their lack of preparation, and with myself for thinking I could teach Flaubert to those who didn’t seem to know or care that anything significant happened before 1990.

I teach at Kingsborough Community College, part of the City University of New York, and the only community college in Brooklyn. It has a three-year graduation rate that is about five percentage points above the national average but is still only 34%. In 2010, CUNY’s Office of Institutional Research and Assessment found that a stunning 74.4 percent of entering students at the university were in need of at least one form of remediation. They needed to take noncredit, high-school-level, developmental classes before they were deemed ready for college-level work.

If this is true at CUNY as a whole, then the situation at community colleges in New York and across the country is even more frightening: They are designed to take nearly any student, but many are unprepared for college.

President Obama has proposed tying federal financial aid to the affordability and the perceived value of an institution. But, while community colleges are often lauded for their affordability, the value of a liberal-arts education is not reducible to narrow and short-sighted assessment parameters like graduation rates and quick exit from remediation.

For one thing, community colleges don’t get credit for students who transfer to other colleges and graduate, so linking funds to those parameters penalizes them, further entrenching the hierarchical, corporate model of American higher education. For another, much of the value of studying the liberal arts—by far the largest major at Kingsborough—makes itself known only after students graduate, in better writing, heightened critical thinking, and wider worldviews.

More than half of American students who earn bachelor’s degrees begin at community colleges. But while the national discourse acknowledges the various socioeconomic reasons that students arrive underprepared, it also perpetuates the idea that there’s no catching up.

This simple acceptance of the need for remediation diminishes the national perception of community colleges’ value, including among community-college students and professors themselves. Is this really college or just 13th grade? Am I to teach the texts one would normally include in a bachelor’s-degree program, or am I just making up for deficiencies and getting students ready to go on to a “real” college?

The answers to these questions reveal the difference between the “old guard” at two-year colleges, who often call themselves “teachers” because they don’t hold Ph.D.’s and don’t publish, and a “new guard,” who have doctorates and produce scholarship. Age, credentials, and employment status, however, matter less than outlook—about the populations we serve, and about the very question of what college is for.

This bifurcation is changing the landscape of community-college teaching. Many of my colleagues do teach challenging material, but some of them think I’m nuts to try to teach Kant and Flaubert in a composition class. Even though my scholarly training is in European literature, I should distribute “texts they can manage.” I should stick to the standard anthologies that so many composition instructors use—with short, outdated essays on abortion and pollution and excerpts of authors from underrepresented groups.

I do teach a lot of those texts. The topics and voices are important. But I also believe, perhaps archaically, that students should read whole books, not just decontextualized snippets. They’re already surrounded by those. Reading three books, even long ones, in a freshman writing class, seems reasonable to me—and I know the students can do it. Can I overcome years of underfunded and mismanaged schooling in one semester? No. But I can try to establish an atmosphere of inquiry and responsibility in my classroom that will serve students whether this is the end of their schooling or not.

One day after I dismissed my class, several students came to office hours to talk through passages of Flaubert. This was a welcome change from the crises I usually get—Sergei’s friend got shot, or Marie’s parents are going to kick her out because she’s pregnant, or Tenzin’s been unable to digest American food ever since he arrived from Bhutan.

This time the students apologized for being unprepared. Some even thanked me for challenging them. Still, I was planning to scale back my assignment and make them responsible for only three chapters of the novel.

But days later, to my amazement, they got it. They were fired up about Flaubert’s “moral history of the men of [his] age,” about people who are spoiled, egotistical, and two-faced. “That Frédéric character was just playin’ everybody.” “Man, my rich aunt is like that, and we don’t trust her at all.” At the end of class, when asked whether the characters in Sentimental Education act in accordance with Kant’s categorical imperative to make their acts conform to universal laws, there were no looks of bewilderment. The class erupted into a resounding “No!”

I’m not a social worker, and I didn’t get a Ph.D. to teach high school. My students may work full time or take care of children or aging parents. It may take them time to exit remediation. But they are in community college to be in college, to be challenged by the same material and rigor that they will encounter when they enter the workplace or transfer to a four-year college. If they are to take community college seriously, then the teaching must be taken seriously by faculty.

Author Bio: Robert Cowan is an associate professor of English at Kingsborough Community College of the City University of New York.

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