It was called a movement when I first got involved: the community college movement. That appealed to me by its romance of revolution, by breaking to pieces the chains that kept the poor and powerless in their places. My circle of friends would talk about living lives that forced change. We wanted to break the self-charging cycle of privilege and open up doors for the kids shut out of the candy shop. We were going to be elementary school teachers, social workers, writers, reporters.
And so we graduated and scattered to jobs (them) or graduate school (me) and I first heard of community colleges. They had been around since 1950, but no one anywhere I’d been had ever spoken of them as if they were real. They were places I drove by, nothing more. But suddenly there was a surge of students wanting or needing college and not enough room in the 4 years; they became more selective; the community college enrollments grew and so did new faculty positions.
I jumped into a graduate program designed around community college teaching and was in the movement. That movement opened the doors to give everyone a chance at a college education. It dropped the tuition cost. It planted community colleges within driving distance of nearly everyone in the state. It hired and promoted according to teaching ability, professional development, and contributions to community and profession. It drew people who dropped out or flunked out, who were too poor, who never finished high school. And it needed a teaching faculty who could take real academics, drain the pomposity and egoism out of themselves and their disciplines, and make it all meaningful.
I still like that challenge. I found, like my circle of friends did, that the problems of poverty and privilege are far more complex than we imagined, that enthusiasm and good intentions don’t take one as far as we thought. But there is still the feel of a revolutionary movement in much of our thinking about this kind of education. Neil Postman wrote that teaching was a subversive activity, and it is.