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I read once that anything older than you is natural, anything invented in your childhood is technology, and anything invented in your adulthood is magic. There’s a real emotional truth to that; the DVR that my kids think of as normal still strikes me as miraculous. The power of the observation is in pointing out that things that seem like they’ve always been there usually have histories. 

That doesn’t make them any less real, of course. Buildings are constructions; anyone who doubts that they’re real is invited to jump off a tall one and let me know how it goes. Something can be real, even imposing, and still be both “constructed” and, in some important sense, fleeting. Buildings come and go. Technologies come and go. 

My brother reminded me of this basic truth a few days ago. I mentioned my gnawing sense that the issue facing community colleges nationally is that they’re built to produce a middle class, but the country no longer wants one. Producing a middle class for a country that no longer wants one is a challenging enterprise on the best of days.

He called me on it. It’s not that we don’t want a middle class anymore, he said.  It’s that we’ve forgotten that the middle class is a historical construction. It wasn’t inevitable, it doesn’t occur in nature, and it can go away. We’ve forgotten that it was the product of a set of choices and circumstances.  It’s the building we’re neglecting because we think, incorrectly, that it will always be there.

It’s a subtle distinction, but an important one. The country still “wants” a middle class, but it has forgotten -- or chosen to obscure -- how to create and support one. So the institutions founded in earlier times as part of the project of creating the middle class now seem out of time.  The narratives in which they made sense have lost their resonance. 

I noticed that at the last few League for Innovation conferences I attended. The elder statesmen of the group kept referring to “the community college movement.” I have never heard that term in any other context. I’m well into my forties, and community colleges were already well-established facts on the ground by the time I grew up.  It would never have occurred to me to think of them as part of a “movement,” any more than post offices or supermarkets are part of a movement. They’re parts of the world.  Some are progressive, some are stuck; some are well-run, some not so much; but the category was seemingly eternal. It wasn’t until I started seeing how the sausage is made that I realized just how precarious, and essential, they actually are.  People of Terry O’Banion’s generation see community colleges as magic; people of my generation see them as natural.

We’re both wrong. They’re constructs that rely on a larger institutional and economic context to thrive.  As that context changes, through a combination of impersonal forces and heedless political choices, they’re under attack. And the same can be said of the middle class itself.

This story on the challenges facing state colleges and universities in Pennsylvania struck me as a glimpse into an all-too-possible future. Huge structural changes have remade the political economy of the state, demographics are shifting quickly, and the best that some legislator can come up with is to eliminate sabbaticals.  This is a sign of forgetting where things come from.  It’s the knee-jerk response of someone who thinks that institutions fall from the sky, and that they can be eternally neglected without meaningful consequence.  It’s a conservatism that knows not what it conserves.

Community colleges are under attack for a host of reasons.  Some of it is class warfare masquerading as “fiscal conservatism.”  Some of it is racism.  Some of it is that old American habit of blaming the poor for, well, being.  Some of it is anxiety about the economic payoff of degrees; if people can’t get jobs anyway, the argument goes, why bother educating them?  Some of it is elite tunnel vision -- if you went to Harvard, it’s easy for you to judge colleges by the yardsticks Harvard prefers, whether that makes sense or not.

But oddly enough, I actually think some of it is misplaced confidence. 

Despite decades of one-step-forward-two-steps-back funding, and despite some very unfriendly changes in the broader employment market, community colleges as a whole continue to produce terrific success stories.  They keep generating cohorts of students who start from modest or spotty backgrounds and go on to achieve wonderful things. Colleges aren’t shy about telling those stories, either. And there’s absolutely no reason they should be shy.  The work that happens on the ground is often amazing.  I consider it a privilege to work here.

That kind of sustained success despite the odds can make it easy for people who aren’t paying attention to move community colleges into the “natural” category. They’ve always been there, they’ve always been underfunded, and they’ve always done good work anyway.  Go ahead and make the cuts, some legislators assume -- the colleges will find a way.  They always do.

Until they don’t. And rebuilding is much, much harder than maintaining.

America didn’t build a prosperous middle class through austerity. It built through a set of conscious choices to invest in the future. Yes, it had tailwinds -- it’s easier to dominate world markets in manufactured products when your main competitors are either rebuilding from land wars or imposing “scientific socialism” on peasant farmers. But we still have productivity growth, and we still have the largest economy in the world. We could choose to harness those advantages by nourishing the institutions that undergird what the rest of the world still recognizes as the American dream. Or we can take it for granted, assume that it’s a fact of nature, and retrench while the world passes us by.

We still want a middle class. We’ve just forgotten that we have to work for it.

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