A few days after my guest post "Community Means Us," an account of my experience in a community college, went live, I received an email directly from Andrew Hacker, co-author of Higher Education?. What he writes is quite interesting and very worth sharing:
Dear Ms. Brienza:
Thanks so much for your kind reference to our Higher Education? in InsideHigherEd. We too were impressed with the quality of the faculty and teaching at RVCC and several other community colleges we visited. Students who are willing to plan their programs carefully can build an excellent freshman and sophomore liberal arts sequence, and in small classes to boot. Moreover, they are now welcomed as juniors at BA colleges, not least to fill places left by disillusioned drop-outs.
In the meantime, even at Ivied colleges, underclass students are crammed into huge lectures, and taught by inexperienced graduate assistants.
As for the difference between the Harvard undergraduate pool and those at Evergreen or Ole Miss, we're not so sure. We've met students at all three, and once one gets underneath the polish, they're much the same. Harvard kids have a nice suburban veneer, burnished by professional parents. By age 35, in a blind test, don't be so sure you can identify who is who. In our book, as you know, we looked at a Princeton class as they entered middle-age. Nice enough; but really very ordinary.
Claudia and I appreciate your writing. If you want to append what we've said here to your good article, feel free to do so.
Yours, Andrew Hacker
I am both delighted and honored to receive Dr. Hacker's correspondence--as well as the generous message of thanks left publicly by co-author Claudia Dreifus in the comments of the post itself--and given the opportunity, I composed a reply to them which clarifies and expands my earlier comments. What follows is a slightly altered version of these additional thoughts.
Firstly, I did not mean to argue that because many less prestigious colleges provide a great undergraduate education that therefore prestigious places which employ graduate teaching assistants do not. The PhD students in the United States I've met are brilliant, enthusiastic, generous people, and I feel fortunate to know them. Their undergraduates are likewise fortunate. So while I believe it is accurate to suggest that undergraduate education in the Ivy League schools is no better than it is in many other (occasionally unlikely) places, on the other hand I would be hesitant to argue that it is necessarily worse. Obviously, you do not need a research superstar to teach Sociology 101 -- nor do you need an instructor with thirty years of experience. Some of the most dedicated and effective teachers I've ever met are current PhD students.
Nevertheless, that fact does not justify the wholesale casualization of the academic workforce. My experience at Raritan Valley Community College was perhaps atypical. Like most community colleges, RVCC relies heavily upon poorly-paid adjuncts (some of whom are also graduate students in the region), but because I was taking upper-level courses as a student there I was fortunate to have taken classes taught primarily by full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty. I believe that this was an invaluable part of my experience. These professors provided not just expertise but also continuity to the educational experience. For students such as me, knowing that the professors would be there semester after semester, year after year, fosters attachment to the college and confidence in its mission. Thus the faculty was key to RVCC's strength. A strong community requires social stability.
Furthermore, we must not forget that not all colleges are created equal, and some, such as RVCC, are, as the saying goes, more equal than others. RVCC serves Hunterdon and Somerset, two of America's richest counties, and even students from the region without Ivy League aspirations tend to have, as Hacker puts in his letter, "a nice suburban veneer, burnished by professional parents." This naturally applies both to traditional students and non-traditional ones alike. Yes, when I needed the health insurance, I enrolled in the community college that happened to be closest and I knew would take me in without question. But the truth of the matter is that I was already ensconced in a position of unearned privilege simply by dint of living nearby. For some Americans, then, the RVCC education I received is as remote as the moon. And in its own modest way, RVCC could be understood to be reproducing privilege as well.
In my previous post, I deliberately aimed to tell a story that was effective by being affective--to make an argument from the heart. However, my head knows that the world is not so simple; demonizing Harvard for employing PhD students as instructors oversimplifies matters as much as does valorizing RVCC for its small class sizes. That just creates the same "them" mentality I firmly believe is so corrosive to public life. Aren't we all students in some contexts and teachers in others...and if so, don't we want the absolute best for all of our institutions of higher learning?