Gooooood morning, San Antonio! A big Texas “Buenos días!” to all gathered there at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center for the 95th annual convention of the American Association of Community Colleges.
A convention hall filled with 1,800 educators? Let’s go Socratic. Questions trump answers.
Raise your hand if you are on food stamps. Nobody? OK, did anyone this morning have an expense-account breakfast or a free breakfast from one of the corporate sponsors? Didn’t the tuition and fees from the nation’s nine million (by President Obama’s count) community college students pay for all the meals here in San Antonio? The plane fares? The hotels?
Question: How many community college students are on food stamps? I don’t know, either. No one seems to. I’ve asked the AACC. I’ve asked the U.S. Department of Education. No luck so far. Raise your hand if students can sign up for food stamps on your campus. Yes, I see a few.
Now, break into groups of two or three. Question: What will you say to one of those students from your community college who is on food stamps? What are you doing here at a convention that doesn’t have questions about hunger -- or the euphemism "food insecurity" -- at least anywhere I could find on the four-day agenda?
Why am I asking? I went to work at a community college to teach College Writing I. I’ve spent as much time, with colleagues, helping students at Bunker Hill Community College sign up for and recertify their food stamps as I have teaching.
Question: What are the big food days at the convention this year? From the schedule I have, it’s a tie -- Sunday, one lunch, nine receptions, and a Latin rhythms dance, and Monday, nine breakfast meetings and a gala dinner.
Discussion question: Does the number of students on federal free and reduced lunch in your feeder high schools let you estimate how many students on your campus might be hungry? If not, why not? Use evidence to support your argument.
Over to the national scene. Question: Did you visit your state’s congressional delegation to support President Obama’s proposal for free community college? Did you propose a better idea? Did you spend more than one hour trying to figure out how to fund the president’s plan at your institution? Did you ask your congressional representatives what they are willing to do for the nine million voters in community college classrooms?
No, no. That’s not me down at the podium. I’m not on the program. I’ve just hacked into the Gonzalez Center's audio-visual system, up here on the Jumbotron, to shout, to scream, to wail the questions every one of you in San Antonio knows must be on the agenda for community college leaders. What do I know? Every one of you is more qualified than I am to give this speech.
Question: Is educating the poor the greatest all-talk, little-action topic in our national public policy?
I’ve hacked into the Jumbotron at the Gonzalez Center to give the keynote address somebody other than me ought to be giving. I’ve hacked into the Jumbotron here at the Gonzalez Center because again the agenda for the AACC annual meeting, sponsored by our students, whose tuition, fees and textbook dollars sponsor the sponsors, ducks the crisis everyone knows our students are in.
Obama’s proposal? Where were we, community colleges? For the third time, President Obama has given community colleges the podium, the microphone and the spotlight. For the third time, where were we? It’s our job, not Obama’s, to find the funding and round up the votes.
Question: Does having Bob Reich, one of the most passionate, most eloquent voices on the dangers of poverty, of inequity, of inadequate education as your invited speaker, podium and Jumbotron, mean that everyone in San Antonio is doing enough for the nine million students? Well, I sent Professor Reich a copy of my speech. Ask Bob what he thinks.
Question: Why do we expect funding to land in our laps? Compare and contrast. For the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education victory stood on 20 years of targeted previous court victories. Community college leaders in 2015 won’t show up unless a funded plan arrives tied with ribbons and a bow?
I’m going to read to you the opening of “A Talk to Teachers” that James Baldwin gave in 1963 to New York City public school teachers. Listen. Please, please, listen.
Let’s begin by saying that we are living through a very dangerous time.
Everyone is this room is one way or another aware of that. We are in a revolutionary situation, no matter how unpopular that word has become in this country. The society in which we live is desperately menaced, not by Khrushchev, but from within. So any citizen in this country who considers himself as responsible -- and particularly those of you who deal with the minds and hearts of young people -- must be prepared to go for broke. Or, to put it another way, you must understand that in the attempt to correct so many generations of bad faith and cruelty, when it is operating not only in the classroom but in society, you will meet the most fantastic, the most brutal, the most determined resistance. There is no point in pretending this won’t happen.
“A very dangerous time”? Question: We have nine million community college students. Community college professionals agree that no more than 50 percent are likely to complete their degree or certificate. What life in the land of the free and the home of the brave is left to the other 50 percent, to those who don’t complete their degree or certificate? Poverty. That’s 4.5 million human beings in our community colleges today who we know are condemned to poverty.
Crisis? Question: Why does everyone seem to think this 4.5 million is OK, an unfortunate fact of life? Where’s the plan to remedy this?
Look at history books. Half the U.S. went to war to free the four million slaves. What will we do for these 4.5 million? Relative to the wealth, to the potential of everyone there in San Antonio, relative to the wealth and potential of this nation, by the standards of what’s possible in 2015, what does it mean about us that we will let these 4.5 million students slip into a life of poverty?
I’m looking for someone, anyone in the Gonzalez Center this morning who also can’t believe that condemning 4.5 million students to a life of poverty is an inevitable fact of life.
Question: Who said achieving equality and social justice is easy?
Let’s listen again to James Baldwin: “You must understand that in the attempt to correct so many generations of bad faith and cruelty, when it is operating not only in the classroom but in society, you will meet the most fantastic, the most brutal, the most determined resistance. There is no point in pretending this won’t happen.”
Funding? Under our noses. What about the tax policies that subsidize Yale, Princeton, Harvard and Williams students, on financial aid or not, to the tune of $20,000 or more per student, depending on your assumptions? When the most from the federal government for our students is a $5,500 Pell Grant, only if the students and their families have filled out the forms correctly. Will the Pentagon or those colleges give up their funding for our students without a fight? Of course not. Again, we didn’t even try.
Crisis? Question: What exactly are the skill levels community colleges must deliver in reading, in writing, in math? How do those skills compare with those of freshmen and sophomores at Yale, at Harvard, at Princeton, at Williams? Impossible to say? We can’t set national standards! Make my day. We can start.
“A very dangerous time”? Raise your hand if you know that your intro biology course would transfer to Mount Holyoke, Smith or Amherst. Raise your hand if you know that MIT would give credit for your courses in calculus and in differential equations. Of course this doesn’t cover all nine million community college students. It’s a start. If we’re not matching skills with top students, how do we know about the rest?
Question: Could your students with, say, 40 or more college credits write an essay in 40 minutes analyzing the rhetorical strategies President Lincoln used in his second inaugural address to achieve his purpose? (I’m failing here. My students need a week at least and many drafts.) That’s a question on an AP exam in English and Expository Writing.
If you have a better proxy of the skills required for freshman writing at a top college, let me know. If you think community college students deserve only lesser skills in basic thinking and writing for any 21st-century job, if you think community colleges can educate worthy citizens who don’t know, understand, cherish Lincoln’s words, I’d say, “Step outside,” but I’m 1,767 miles away, in Boston.
Time to return your Jumbotron to AACC control. While you’re down there in San Antonio, remember our students who don’t have food waiting at receptions.
What do I know about the 1,800 there in the Gonzalez Center? I know you can do James Baldwin proud, and go for broke. Why are we waiting?
Question: Why not close with President Obama? “Yes, we can.”
Wick Sloane, an end user of a selective-college education, writes “The Devil’s Workshop” for Inside Higher Ed. Follow him @WickSloane.