Night School, English 101
A veteran English professor who taught at a community college introduced readers to the “Elite of Grit” in the Spring 1993 issue of The College Board Review
Amidst a rapidly changing job market, a shifting higher education landscape, and the ballooning student loan crisis, community colleges are getting a fresh look. And when students, families, and lawmakers look at the institutions, many find not only an alternative to a four-year post-high school program but also a way to ease into a traditional college experience. That reassessment began before covid-19, but the pandemic gave it a serious boost.
It's easy to understand why some might be pleasantly surprised to "discover" community colleges. After all, they tend not to take a central role in our conversations about what comes after high school. But community colleges have aren't new, and neither are their benefits—particularly to low-income, immigrant, and working students. These institutions have been a crucial, albeit oft-overlooked piece of American higher ed for decades, helping learners of young and old earn certifications, skill up, and retrain.
In Spring 1993, as the country dug out of a recession and a not-insignificant portion of the working population was confronted with disappearing jobs and industries, The College Board Review celebrated the community college with a special issue dedicated to their utility and importance. There's a lot in the issue worth highlighting, but one of the best stories comes from A. J. Downs, who at the time was an adjunct associate professor at Essex Community College in Baltimore, which followed a four-decade career at the private prep Gilman School.
"There are ample statistics to suggest that the notion of upward mobility may be a cruel fraud, that the country is indeed in the process of creating a permanent underclass," Downs writes. "This is why the way out (or up) provided by the community college is so vital to the future of our society."
His piece, "Night School, English 101," is notable for its passion—and, despite being 30 years old, its timeliness. Downs cites demographic statistics about his students—"Three-quarters of my students hold down full-time jobs; a third have full-time jobs and young children. They not only have no time to spare, they have no margin."—that are relatively unchanged today. He talks up developing independence and agency in his students, buzzwords (even if he doesn't use those exact ones) that color our 21st century higher ed discussions: "That goal is autonomy for my students. I do not want my students to depend upon me as an authority. I want them to learn to trust themselves, to seek their own solutions—not wait passively for mine." And he extols community colleges' civic and democratic importance.
"As I have said, these students are not paragons; they are rather, in the most basic sense, an elite," Downs writes. "More than that, they can be seen, it seems to me, as only the most recent of the waves of special elites who have defined and invented the United States, from the waves of immigrants who chose not to accept persecution and hardship in Europe to the descendants of slaves, who choose today not to accept a kind of inherited servitude."
Now there’s a sentiment that feels especially resonant today.
As the nation begins the hard work of pandemic recovery— particularly in schools, and definitely for students—a crucial part of the effort will be redefining education for a changed world. Anyone looking for a starting point could do worse than reading Downs’ celebration of community colleges: “To experience a roomful of learners really believing that they—we—are all in this together is to experience education as it ought to be.”
Community college classes taught by the author possessed a sense of family that encouraged teamwork in a way that more homogeneous classes didn't.
So, the country is going to hell in a handbasket, and the handbasket was made in America by public schools, and our kids can't write, won't read, and calculate only so long as the batteries in the pocket calculator hold out. They don't know a binomial from a bivalve; they are pretty sure that Robert E. Lee had something to do with Vietnam and that Woodrow Wilson played outfield for Kansas City. Their favorite book is anything from CliffsNotes, and the idea of writing anything longer than a shopping list gives them the vapors. And they won't work, or honor their elders, let alone their fathers and mothers, or show any respect whatsoever for anything that doesn't give them something called instant gratification.
If all this is true, how can it be that, day after day, I walk away from my English 101 class at Essex Community College inspired and challenged by some of the most dedicated, honorable people I have ever known? Where did my students learn to write prose of force, style, and clarity? How can I account for the fact that they soak up each scrap of knowledge and insight I can give them, and leave me feeling that I owe them more energy than I can summon? How can I be having so much fun?
It is no starry-eyed rookie who writes these words. I taught for 40 years at Gilman, a top-flight prep school. Average SAT scores for our seniors never fell below 1150, and most of our graduates consistently went on to the most selective colleges in the country—and from college to careers of predictable distinction. I remember two of them as the most fanatic Orioles fans I ever knew. One of them became president of Bowdoin College, and the other is sportswriter Frank Deford. The kids were bright and motivated, and the classes were small. I used to run college counseling, and I would sometimes take visiting professors and admissions deans into my classes. One of them told me one day that he doubted I could match the intellectual firepower in my senior English class on more than five or six college campuses. It was a kind of education paradise, and I enjoyed every minute I taught there.
Still, nothing could have prepared me for the experience of teaching English 101 at Essex Community College. I have a degree from a great college, another from one of the world's great universities, and those 40 years in a great independent school. I know a bit about the electricity of education at its best, and from both sides of the lectern. Yet, if I were asked to choose for a visitor from abroad, or from another galaxy, the one most astounding American educational experience, I would take him to English 101 at Essex.
What is it about a community college that sets this Medicare subscriber to capering like a colt in spring? Why, of all the classrooms I have lived and grown in, is Room 342 (Humanities), Essex, Maryland, the most magical of all?
Let's start with demographics. To step into my class at Essex is to break-blessedly-out of the generational lockstep that characterizes most of American education. A visiting Martian, were he to visit up and down the ranks of all American schools, would surely conclude that our system is based on the curious theory that everyone learns the same thing at the same age and at precisely the same rate. That surely was the assumption I made throughout my career as a student and teacher until Essex. (It was seen as a rather daring innovation when Gilman School began teaching selected English electives to eleventh and twelfth graders together.)
At present. my students at Essex range in age from 17 to 50; the class includes a Vietnam veteran, a hairdresser, four nurses (one male), the leader of a rock band, a Jamaican, the parents of a total of 10 children (seven of whom live with single parents), a high school cheerleader, and five part-time waitresses. (I would guess that waitressing represents the single largest source of tuition money at Essex.)
It is impossible to overemphasize the impact of this diversity on the tone of the class. In the first place, it blows to smithereens the main reason for the educational "adversariality": young students versus old teacher. More important, it creates a kind of instant family. Lots of mothering goes on in my class and less, but some, fathering. Highly significant "mentoring" goes on daily. For example, the Vietnam veteran, who also happens to be the male nurse, has become an instant role model for the high school students, and the 40-year-old mother of two acts as a big sister to an 18-year-old girl.
Above all, it makes my central goal as a teacher so much easier that I still do not believe it. That goal is autonomy for my students. I do not want my students to depend upon me as an authority. I want them to learn to trust themselves, to seek their own solutions—not wait passively for mine. I do not mean that Essex students come to me as autonomous learners; they do not. But in that room are adult role models other than the teacher, and that fact makes all the difference.
It makes even more difference that virtually all of my students pay their own tuition. After my years in an independent boys' school, it took me a while to grasp the enormous implications of that fact—like a fish discovering that he is swimming in water. These students are not here for—on behalf of—anyone but themselves, and it makes them infinitely better consumers of the product I offer. Dollars do not grow on trees, as these students well know, and they propose to get their money's worth.
If money is at a premium at Essex, so is time. Three-quarters of my students hold down full-time jobs; a third have full-time jobs and young children. They not only have no time to spare, they have no margin. Let the sitter be 10 minutes late, and the whole day collapses. Sore throats, colds, walking pneumonia, walking casts, are nuisances to be ignored—one woman arrived 20 minutes late and contrite, having come directly from the emergency room where her sister, seriously injured in an auto accident, was barely stabilized. The effect of all this on the teacher is to create the solemn determination not to waste a minute of the students' time. The educational intensity in my classroom is either inspiring or daunting, depending on my own mood.
The great curse of this kind of education is absenteeism, for students do, sometimes, get too sick to walk, and then they are likely to stay down for a while. One of my students missed a class because she had to testify in a court proceeding against her abusing ex-husband; actually, she missed all but the last five minutes, for she rushed to school from the court to glean all she could.
With rare exceptions, their intensity only strengthens in the face of absence. These students are near-neurotic in their determination not to get far behind. Some of my colleagues hide behind unlisted phone numbers to escape blizzards of make-up calls; for a part-timer like me, the burden is not so great. Besides, my burden pales beside those of the students.
Community colleges provide a way to improve the future of individuals and our society as a whole.
I have mentioned the feeling of family that exists, and it is in the matter of absenteeism that this family feeling truly comes into play. My students will drive miles out of their way, using time they do not have, to take work to a sick classmate. The day the young woman rushed into class from the emergency room, five classmates surrounded her during the break, like dolphins supporting a wounded comrade—sustaining, reviewing, helping. They did not so much keep me out of their circle as signal to me that they were doing fine. Teamwork and autonomy blended: a most gracious combination.
Curiously, these students seem largely without jealousy or envy. Their joy in the accomplishments of their classmates is, so far as I can tell, sincere and untainted by any hint of self-interest. I must guard against mythologizing them; community college students are not plaster saints. Take the matter of jealousy and envy of classmates. My students at Gilman suffered from what might be called systemic hypercompetition; they knew, without being told, that the number of places at Harvard and Princeton, Williams and Amherst, was finite. Some of them would make it; some would not. And even in the best-intentioned of them, such pressure creates, at the margin of conscience, the knowledge that, "A bad grade for a classmate is a gain for me." And, once at Harvard, it begins all over again: To make it into Yale Law or Hopkins Med School, "I must win, lest I lose—and the more others lose, the better my chances." It is reminiscent of those experiments where rats in a cage are given electric shocks until, finally, they turn on one another. This hypercompetition at the top levels of our system is, in my judgment, a kind of cancer—but that is another story, worth mentioning here only for the sake of contrast. The point is that my students at Essex, given the same pressures as those at Gilman, would reason in precisely the same way and, of course, vice versa.
How do community colleges escape the perils of hypercompetition? Of course they do not, not altogether, but by and large they do, because the goals of these students tend to be what might be called generic. Given a good record, my students who want to go on to, say, the bachelor's program at the state university, or the Philadelphia College of Optometry, are not under the pressure of knowing that they are in a life-or-death struggle to fill the only two places available. Nor are those who seek employment tempted to assume that the worse their classmates do, the better their own chances.
In any case, the effect on the teacher of the absence of hypercompetition is incalculable. To experience a roomful of learners really believing that they—we—are all in this together is to experience education as it ought to be.
Another quality that snaps into sharp focus as a result of my years in private education comes under the heading of entitlement. Parents and students at exclusive independent schools (and colleges, for that matter) can hardly be blamed if they come to expect, as a matter of right, excellence in instruction, on-call counseling, and virtually unlimited tolerance for academic and behavioral shortcomings in return for financial outlays that Essex students would find breathtaking. It is not the fault of students in expensive independent schools that they sometimes regard heroic efforts on the part of their teachers as only to be expected, as services to which they are entitled.
It is not because of any excess of virtue in my Essex students that they are altogether devoid of any sense of entitlement; it is simply that their previous experiences have not led them to the conclusion that anyone owes them anything. This grizzled veteran, however, has again and again been taken by surprise. It happens when he stops on the way to the parking lot to give a struggling student 10 minutes of extra instruction, and she sheds tears of gratitude. Or when a young man walks to my desk 10 minutes into the exam to tell me he simply does not deserve to pass, and refuses to consider my offer to work with him and let him try again later. Or when I get an anonymous note thanking me for working so hard to get the pronunciation of a student's consonant-studded Polish name right (safely anonymous because the class includes six of them). I have said before that the harsh time constraints on my students induce in me a determination not to waste a moment of their time. Add to that the soul-nourishing positive reinforcement of their daily gratitude for my smallest effort, and the result is pedagogic motivation the likes of which I have not experienced before—accompanied, I must confess, by an exhaustion akin to theirs at the end of the day.
Virtually all students pay their own tuition and work hard to "get their money's worth."
As I have said, these students are not paragons; they are rather, in the most basic sense, an elite. More than that, they can be seen, it seems to me, as only the most recent of the waves of special elites who have defined and invented the United States, from the waves of immigrants who chose not to accept persecution and hardship in Europe to the descendants of slaves, who choose today not to accept a kind of inherited servitude. One should remember, the college that produced the most graduates who went on to earn PhD's in the first half of the twentieth century was the City College of New York, the prototype, in many ways, of the present community college.
I asked my students one day to signify if either parent had a bachelor's degree—four of 22 raised their hands. These people are, in the final analysis, an Elite of Grit, of the simple determination not to settle for flipping burgers, pumping gas, waitressing, or sanitary engineering. I am not at all sure that they owe any of this determination to previous schooling, or indeed that American higher education deserves any particular credit for them—any more than the United States, as a nation, deserved the incalculable riches of intellect and character that the immigrant ancestors of most of my Essex students brought.
There are ample statistics to suggest that the notion of upward mobility may be a cruel fraud, that the country is indeed in the process of creating a permanent underclass. This is why the way out (or up) provided by the community college is so vital to the future of our society. I have said that teaching in such a school is emotionally and intellectually draining for me, because the students are spending every ounce of energy and devotion they have, and because they are so touchingly grateful for my efforts on their behalf. Add to these a third factor: every time I walk into that spare and simple classroom, I am looking at 15 or so people on the very verge of breaking out—of showing that the American Dream is not yet quite dead. It concentrates a teacher's mind.
It also puts into sharp relief a final reality: as I drive into the faculty-staff parking area these days, I find a slot right away. When I started here three years ago, it sometimes took me 20 minutes to park. Times are tough. The county has slashed our budget, which is one reason I am here, since I cost less than a full-timer. Hours in the college writing center (the real engine of student literacy) are down almost by half. We have had to raise tuition—people who would have been in my class two years ago just can't swing it today. Cutbacks like these, as Bobby Kennedy used to say, are simply unacceptable. Reduce trash collections, close swimming pools, raise taxes, I find myself thinking; but don't wreck the tax base of the future by wrecking community colleges. And, as George Will would be all too quick to point out, I just became a special interest. So be it.