Writing in the Washington Post, Susan Sharpe, a community college instructor, compares her daughter’s Reed education with the education of two-year college students.
A typical English teacher at NOVA has 125 to 135 students a semester, which is almost triple the number per teacher at Reed. For better and worse, we’re not intellectuals actively engaged in scholarly pursuits. Our students don’t get to leave home and are not isolated from the cares of the world — they have jobs, children, parents, car trouble; they have to make their meals and pay their bills and haul out their trash. They have almost no time or opportunity for community with one another. They differ in nationality, age, educational goals.
We teach only two years of college. If you were to take one of our sophomores and look at his or her academic work, and look at the sophomore work of my daughter’s classmates, the differences would be huge. The Reed students read 10 times as much, and they read original texts by thinkers and scholars, ancient and modern.
Community college students usually read magazine articles and textbooks, summaries of the works by the thinkers and scholars. The Reed students write better; not that their writing doesn’t have sins, but the sins are different. They can be verbose, stuffy, sometimes disorganized. But their expression is richly textured, subtle, even occasionally original. Almost all community college students, on the other hand, have at least a few problems with grammar, which get in the way. They tend to write simple sentences in order to avoid mistakes, and thus do not express their most subtle thoughts. Their vocabularies are more limited, and their thinking strives for the dogmatically conventional. Their most earnest question about an assignment is usually, “I don’t understand exactly what you want.” These aren’t necessarily differences in intelligence. They are the differences in the students’ experiences and how they have been taught.
Most students who start community college hoping to transfer to a four-year college never make it through. They’re distracted by jobs and family responsibilities; they get stuck in remedial classes. For those who persist, it’s a wonderful opportunity. Sharpe writes about a grandmother, a former truck driver hoping to be a teacher, who was offered a scholarship to an elite women’s college (apparently Smith), but warned she might have to work five or six hours a week.
I watched her face. Only five or six hours? In Virginia, she took care of grandchildren and a household, went to school full time, worked 30 hours as a teacher’s aide. She looked at me and started to cry, and then she was embarrassed and beat her fist on the table and said: “I never in my life expected to be offered an opportunity like this one! If America isn’t the greatest country in the world, I want to hear someone say it. Just come over here and try saying that to me!”
Via Amardeep Singh.