COMMUNITY COLLEGE CONUNDRUM

It is always dangerous to let me get bored…

I can only speak to my own venue here in Southern California, but it appears to me that our world-class Photo Program is now thoroughly caught in a maelstrom caused by competing currents formed initially by two competing goals and purposes for Community Colleges as their primary mission.  A third current adds to the whirlpool danger because it stems from a State which has so massively over-spent and over-promised unfunded liabilities it is technically bankrupt with no ability to EVER have the money to pay its obligations.  Yet it is facing serious lobbying by the State’s 4-year schools to bail them out by funneling more students their way.  And the obvious place they want to get them is via the Community College System.

Historically, the Community College objectives have been a bit schizophrenic anyway.   Initially it was seen as a softer pathway to a “real” college by interposing a semi-college experience without the educational rigor and hard demands for performance that a real University traditionally exhibits.  This was especially important in a venue where the educational standards and test results on the high school level were on a significant slide.  This “Prep School” approach was an attempt to help that and the common name for this preparatory institution was a “Junior College.”  It was a transition from the decreasing rigor of the high schools into the difficult educational world of the University were they generally tried to solicit students not by being the easiest but by being the best which usually means being tough.  I recall courses requiring considerably more homework time than class time, where a test a week was common and the cutoff point for failure was more like 75% not 50%. 

That cold world was a shock to the system of kids coming out of high schools where hard subjects were being dropped and warm and fuzzy PC topics became more and more common.  The result? This is now a place where top students are taking special courses in the Community Colleges to earn both High School AND college level credits because the topics are no longer available in the High Schools

This was a place where exit exams were increasingly denigrated and finally cancelled because they might make the failing students feel bad.  This was Doctor Spock on steroids where “feeling” good was of far more importance than actually learning to BE good at something.  This was a so-called educational system where, in the late 80s, the legislature and educational system patted itself on the back in front-page, above the fold, newspaper headlines by making it mandatory that high School students again pass an exit exam… but to pass they had to score on the 10th grade equivalency level. 

It has been a long time since I was in High School but I distinctly remember my Senior year was the 12th grade… or was I just stupid and had to go two extra years to get out?  In fact I would NOT have gotten my diploma if I could score no better than a 10th grader.  And some didn’t.  And didn’t.

Meantime, back in the 70s someone finally pulled their head from the educational system quicksand and realized that the world did not run exclusively by people with 4 year and graduate degrees.  Holding the entire ship afloat was a foundation of people, every bit as competent in their rolls as any PhD lecturer, who maybe never had real job in their lives.  These were people with no degrees, no diplomas, but with extraordinary skills at things like building houses and cars (and keeping them running), fixing plumbing and air-conditioning, creating the advertising that sold the goods and services that kept the country’s productivity humming along, and who provided the transportation that moved all of that through the country.  But they too were not born with the knowledge and skills they needed, they had to learn it somehow, and, better yet, they entered the work force and started paying taxes faster than those going on to get their advanced degrees in such incredibly society-necessary fields as, say, Poli-Sci.

And that led to a change of approach in which the Prep-School model for Junior Colleges became the Vocational-Technical (Votech) model for the newly titled “Community Colleges.”  Here, you could still do the University Prep courses on a softer track than just being dumped into the maw of the 4-year University, but increasingly you could also learn the vocational and technical skills to actually get a real job.  The old cliché of “Those who Can, DO and those who Cannot, TEACH” was exposed as having a lot of veracity, and those votech courses taught by people with years of experience in their fields drew a whole new body of students, hungry for the skills to let them go out and get a job.

Of course, the “educational” wing looked down on the “vocational” wing with utter disdain.  Why, good grief, there wasn’t a PhD among ‘em.  And without that, who could take you seriously?  The answer was the work force and the students.  But despite that, some of these so-called “trades” topics flourished and drew a good supply of students.  And among them were programs, like ours, that offered education in the very hard, competitive world of professional photography.

Professional photographers were the ones to illustrate the news so those 10th graders could have a better understanding of what was happening.  It was professional photographers who showed the world through advertising and fashion, what was for sale, how it could look, and why you ought to choose one brand over another.  And as we evolve to more and more online sales and less and less brick and mortar store fronts, those photographs are becoming more important than ever to help keep commerce and productivity moving forward.

However, now that lack of State funds for education has whipped this whirlpool back into a vessel- sinking froth.  The Universities were quick to the table to get in their pleas for funding.  And, truth to tell, public and higher education ought to be a very high item on the State’s economic triage list, perhaps second only to public safety and intrastate commerce.  Actually since I do believe that the future of a state or country is dependent on the education of its citizens I’d have to be convinced that education, per se, should not be the HIGHEST priority for its funds… and so far, I’m not.

 Alas that does not seem to be the case in government or in the educational system, and by the time the actual list got down to educational needs, there was far too little left to go around in any meaningful way.  And since California has offered highly subsidized Community College  credits for years (students now pay in the vicinity of $120.00 per credit LESS than what it costs to offer the courses, that deficit being made up by the state) one obvious way to keep more money for the Universities is to cut back on Community College courses. 

Once that decision is made then the question remains, which courses?  Should we cut back on the courses the students could get in the 4 year schools anyway though they would be tougher?  Or should we cut back on the courses that might put them more quickly into the work force paying taxes and helping the state out of its problems and which they cannot get at the Universities?  The decision ought to be a no-brainer.  And it apparently was.  Cut back on the votech courses.

So now there is precious little money for the votech courses, but wait, another decision needs to be made as to how to spend that money that is left.  And again, two primary options emerge.  Should we spend it to try to maximize the courses we can offer in the votech world to best serve those students that are here “by the book” as citizens or on legitimate student visas, green cards, etc.?  Or, since we are virtually a sanctuary state and campus, should we use it to provide full ride scholarships to undocumented students and “dreamers?”  Again, it ought to be a no brainer and apparently no brains were needed in the decision: provide the scholarships to undocumented students and then, of necessity, kill the votech classes which, of course, kills them for ALL potential students regardless of status even though these might serve these marginalized students better than the college prep courses.

Brilliant.  Another double handful of froth into the maelstrom.

I am fearful for the future of the professional photo program under such circumstances and attitudes.  Of course we were not asked to defend the program, or to explain why we should be allowed to run a full program to try to get students out into the workforce.  One person of astonishing ignorance said, “Well they have photo programs in the Universities.”  Yes they do, but they are all fine art programs not geared to professional level and type of work.  They do not concern themselves with the business of being a photographer.  We do. 

Oh well, maybe not for long.  I believe that if you have a job that can be broken into various task;  and each of those tasks can be identified, described, and reduced to an algorithm, then by the middle of this century your job will no longer exist and the tasks will be performed by robots or computers, or some form of AI device.  That is the increasing conclusion of more and more social scientists and historians.  According to the latest thinking, by 2050 as much as 50% to 70% OR MORE of the current jobs will simply cease to exist.  And unlike the industrial revolution where you simply needed to learn a new skill, this time there will be no new skills to learn and there will be no work to be had even if you did.  Then what?

One big question since this is increasingly accepted as a likely future by scientists, who of your political heroes seems to be addressing it and planning for it?  Anyone???  Wouldn’t you think a 70% unemployment would probably create a political issue?

And what about photography?  Well with the world increasingly going online for everything from education to retail sales, it will be the image makers who provide the material to help you learn and help you decide which product to buy. 

Now, if that indeed is the future we can expect barreling down on us, which of all those feel-good courses, those oh-so-sensitive philosophies, are the ones that may make you or your students part of the useful class and not part of the impending majority even now being called, the “USELESS CLASS?”  And how well do these educational decisions support success in that future? 

I’m told these decisions are all about “Social Justice.”  If that is the case, then I’d have to say just a tiny bit more thinking needs to be applied.  Justice, per se, is social.  A tribe of one person renders the idea of justice meaningless.  It takes a society to make the word have any meaning.  By definition, Justice IS social justice so the very term is a redundancy.  The question is what is meant by justice and then what kind of justice?  If justice means equality, then we still have at least two versions to consider: equality of opportunity (the kind of justice spoken of in our Constitution?  OR equality of outcome, in short, a form of universal justice?

The former is a workable goal but it is not achieved by viewing the world as a zero-sum game.  We are each different and will never be equal as individuals.  There are geniuses out there with far greater intelligence than I have.  Is that fair?  No.   I limp from military service, and I cannot climb the cable trail up to the top of Half Dome in Yosemite as I once could and would dearly like to do again.  So does that mean that for all of us that are physically challenged, the park should install an elevator to the top like it provides wheelchair ramps down in the valley?  Is it fair?  Of course not.  My birth certificate does not include a certificate of universal fairness to which I would be entitled just due to being born.

And if it did, what would that mean in practice?  Well, not always something good.  Professor Yorgrau, my old symbolic logic teacher at the University of Denver, once gave us an example.  Suppose you and 200 people are on a ferry that starts to take on water and will sink before it can reach the dock or help can arrive.  But because it was tourist season, the boat took on 75 more people than it has life preservers for.  Universal justice dictates the same outcome for all, and since all cannot be saved, then to be fair, an objective application of universal fairness means all must drown together.  Because you believe in universal justice will you go to the rail, serve as a model, and leap in?

And that is precisely what these decisions are doing for the school generally, and for our program specifically.  Trying to assure that we all drown together.  And what if someone were a good enough swimmer to actually make the shore?  Would that be allowed?  Not if we applied universal justice.  Universal justice is not and cannot be about bringing everyone up to the top tier because it is not always possible; instead, it is about bringing everyone down to the lowest common denominator where we all have equality of outcome.

If this were not a family channel, I could tell you what I’d like to see one do with that sort of justice and just where they should put it…

Just sayin’. 

About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
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2 Responses to COMMUNITY COLLEGE CONUNDRUM

  1. gene says:

    well put…their are a lot of folks that need to read and understand this.,…of course they won’t / can’t.

  2. ndking says:

    Unfortunately I think you are correct. I was thinking it was a waste of time to write it but who knows, maybe someone will readit, think about it, and decide to revisit some of those decisions…

    Nah…

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