An article in last Sunday’s New York Times, “Raising Ambitions: The Challenge in Teaching at Community Colleges,” caught The Scrapbook’s eye. At a time when higher education is prohibitively expensive and more than a little dysfunctional, community colleges are often underappreciated. However, the New York Times being the New York Times, the publication took this potentially revealing subject and turned it into a grand adventure in missing the point.
Though it purports to be a big-picture feature, the Times’s report boils down to a profile of Professor Eduardo Vianna at LaGuardia Community College in Queens. According to the Times, Vianna has had success engaging marginal students where others have failed, as evidenced by this choice anecdote:
Mr. Rifino was working as a cashier at a Gap in a mall on Queens Boulevard, and feeling despondent about it. Dr. Vianna then introduced him to Erich Fromm’s writing on Marx, and something in Mr. Rifino ignited, as he began to examine his own sense of alienation. He quickly finished his work at LaGuardia, and transferred to Hunter College in 2012. In the fall he began a doctoral program in psychology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.
We wish Mr. Rifino the best, but we’re pretty sure American employers are not clamoring for psychology doctorates. Nor does inculcating strong opinions about Karl Marx vis-à-vis the supposed immiseration of mall workers, who are not exactly industrial revolution wage slaves, strike us as a persuasive argument for directing more resources to community colleges.
Vianna has made it his mission to expand inchoate minds in a leftward direction. “The thing about the 1 percent owning 40 percent of the wealth, they were shocked,” he told the Times. Indeed, “Most students were, if not transformed in every instance by what they had learned, at least unsettled, and by the end of the semester they could challenge one another’s beliefs based on what they had absorbed in class, arguing for example about whether it was hard work or native talent that drove success,” notes the Times. After all, what good is college if it doesn’t cause students to question basic assumptions, such as the value of hard work?
Speaking of hard work, the Times is very concerned about teachers like Vianna. “His course load leaves little time for reflection,” they note. “Dr. Vianna teaches five classes a semester, which is typical of instructors at two-year colleges; as a tenured faculty member at a top private college he might be required to teach two.” The problem, of course, is not that a good many college professors are underworked. It’s that Vianna has to be in class teaching 15-20 hours a week.
Instead of a leg up in the job market or new vocational skills, the important thing at a community college is apparently acquiring a sense of intellectual complexity: “If they come here with the goal of doing something very specific—to become a stewardess, or a makeup artist—they may think, ‘What’s the point?’ ” Exactly! Students who go to college to learn something useful and productive might even start resenting the fact that they’re paying a lot of money to learn from people who spend most of their time sitting around contemplating discredited economic theories.
It should be obvious to the Times, but if left-wing cant were a recipe for setting minds aflame, we would have seen an American renaissance over the last 50 years. Instead, American education and labor markets are in crisis. Community colleges are valuable precisely because they’re less hamstrung by ivory tower pretensions and are more directly accountable to students. But if the Times and Professor Vianna have their way, community colleges will soon join their overpriced liberal arts competitors in a race to the bottom.