Part II: College Completion or a Complete Human Being? A Deweyan Vision of the Community College


Nassau Community College
AAUP Advocacy Chapter

November 17, 2015

Part II: An Argument Against the Completion Agenda

I just finished reading John Dewey and the Future of Community College Education by Clifford Barbour. Barbour points out that since the Great Recession of 2008, community colleges have had a laser-like focus on completion rates, the hope being this focus will improve the economy and reduce inequality. The Completion Agenda underlies current institutional priorities: streamlining curricular pathways to enhance completion; questioning the need for boutique programs; using learning analytics to assess student learning; reducing faculty prerogatives in the instructional process; all the while being guided by the mantra of “student success.” The problem with the Completion Agenda is it produces incomplete human beings: people prepared to meet only the short-term employment needs of business and who are obsolete and helpless once this need ends. This essay isn’t an argument against college completion, just the Completion Agenda: put differently, just as democracy is founded upon a separation of church and state, perhaps community colleges should be re-founded upon a separation of education and business.

The ethos of the Completion Agenda is the soulless logic of the free-market and the spirit-killing despotism of Big Data: the theory seems to be that economic problems (unemployment, flat wages, inequality, global competition) require imposing upon community colleges business-oriented solution. Clifford Barbour opposes the Completion Agenda with a model of the community college inspired by John Dewey. Barbour’s Deweyan model argues that a community college’s central purpose is to promote individual growth. Our goal as educators is to prepare our students to be fully-functioning members of a democracy. If we are not doing that, we are tacitly admitting that the needs of corporations are more important than the needs of a democracy. To prepare for life in a democracy, students must leave college with an ability to “interact freely and constructively with diverse communities in order to understand one another and build shared interests.” Lacking this ability, we become alienated and hopeless, unable to communicate and cooperate with others to build and sustain communities in times of crisis. Along with inculcating this ability to thrive in a diverse society, community college students should learn how to think critically and reflectively in collaboration with others. More and more we treat critical thinking as if it were an expensive option, like say a blind-spot warning system on a car. The whole point of critical thinking is the ability to analyze problems and come up with solutions: it’s not only a basic tool of personal and social survival; it’s an instrument of personal and social transformation. Just look at Scott Douthat’s Shawnee State sociology students, and how they used collaborative critical thinking to help save a dying town. Critical thinking should extend to occupations. Our students should leave college with a sense of how their occupation has a social function, how it contributes to society. It’s not just about making money. Students should understand their occupation, it relevance to society, its history, and place in the economy: such awareness will prepare the student to adapt to technological change and shifting economic priorities. More and more, our students are being subjected to a kind of planned obsolescence: once they outlast their value, they’re done. To help defeat this tendency toward obsolescence and and its concomitant demoralization, college instruction should be “organized around shared problem solving.” Students must develop a critical consciousness: how am I being shaped by the forces in my life? How can I change them? How can I solve problems collaboratively for the good of society? Finally, we must never track students into particular programs: this destroys ambition, creates resentments in communities, and replicates class divisions.

This is Dewey’s vision: the community college should be a microcosm of an intelligent, dynamic, critically-reflective, and caring democracy: it should not mimic what America is at risk of becoming (or has already become), a crowd of frantic, frightened, self-possessed automatons helping to enrich a handful of extremely wealthy families, our very own, beloved oligarchy. An interesting data point from Case and Deaton’s study of white, middle-aged opioid morbidity: the highest death rates happened among those with only a high-school education. The lesson: if you can’t critically imagine a way out of your dilemma, a pain-free death looks like the best solution.

Tim Strode, PhD
NCC AAUP, Executive Committee

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