Soft America Meets Hard America – The Junior College

Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed, and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away. It is not important that he should mature as soon as an apple-tree or an oak. Shall he turn his spring into summer? If the condition of things which we were made for is not yet, what were any reality which we can substitute? – Thoreau

Last week, my husband marked up a paper written by one of his favorite students – although that is not how he thinks of Allen. He & my husband have been through a lot together, their relationship going back to their junior high days in a small Texas town. Now both are in their fifties. Allen needed English grad hours to broaden his teaching fields at the junior college where he now works. So he rather industriously read a pile of books and wrote an interesting & scholarly paper. (About which more in a later post.)

Nor is this, frankly, how I think of him. The night of our first date, my husband invited me to his small rent house near U.T. Allen, his neighbor, popped in and out several times, until he persuaded his wife to come over and dry her just-washed hair while talking to us. This wasn’t exactly how my “date” had planned the evening, which included dinner for two and some semi-romantic music on the stereo. This was Allen thirty-five years ago – dropping acid often, flunking out of U.T. with 48 hours of F’s, being supported by a too-understanding first wife whose father rented out the other two small houses on Washington Square to him and his wife’s brother.

Fast forward to the mid-eighties and we find Allen doing fairly well at business. He’d begun as a collector for a rental company (his duties included keeping a gun in his glove box and being willing to use it). Having some money himself, he started his own TV rental business, building it into a small chain. He lived with us while expanding in our area. One day, we were comparing our luck with bad checks. I said we didn’t get all that many – it probably said something about our clientele. He pointed out that they didn’t get many because they didn’t accept any. He said he thought maybe half their clients were ex-felons. The manager of his local store, drinking a beer with my husband in the dining room, looked at him somewhat critically. “No, Allen,” he interjected, “I’m pretty sure it’s a lot more than half.”

He had moved on to a second wife but also begun to be responsible. He started taking drama (his theoretical major in the late sixties) at his local junior college. He was doing well; his acting was praised and his teacher wanted Allen to take over when he retired. Living with us, he finished his B.A., and then moved on to Houston for his M.A. He now has a third wife and a third degree, LSU for his Ph.D in theater. And he is teaching speech at the junior college where he took on this new role.

Yes, there are second acts in America. And third ones. And fourth ones.

And that’s what junior colleges are for – we provide a stage. Some make it. Some don’t. We’re open admissions. But if we do what we are supposed to do, we’re Hard America. Allen was redeemed by a junior college that tested his new maturity, found it sound, and encouraged its development. A school that required proof of grades or accomplishment would not have accepted him. A school that was soft & fuzzy would not have tested him – would not have prepared him for the three steps & degrees after that one. We are both welcoming & hardening. Conferences with our chairs can be sticky if we give too many A’s or even too many B’s. We’re like the old frontier – you can begin again, but that doesn’t make it easy. Sometimes it takes our students a while to understand the topography. They tend to take school either much more seriously or much less than those at the state teacher’s colleges that surround us. These schools have minimal standards; some students have trouble even meeting those; on the other hand, our Hard students are aiming higher.

When I first returned to teaching, I found my tests resulted in strange patterns. I sat in the coffee room, despairing at getting it right. Then, a colleague looked at the grades, said, “Sure, that’s the spread I get.” Instead of a mass that slowly petered out to A’s and F’s, the curve was essentially inverse – the fewest in the C’s. Another perspective is of two bell curves – a high one & a low one. (Since one of our virtues is small classes, this is not always clear since we have few dots in which to find a complex pattern.) These are strongest in my objective tests, which probably means the dual curve is a good indicator. My friend who teaches philosophy observed it was most true in his logic classes – the most objective one he teaches.

Michael Barone is on to something. The first (& smaller) bell, peaking at high B’s, live in Hard America; they’ve been brought up against reality, they see life as a challenge – though one they enjoy. They have goals, know how to work, and generally don’t just want a decent grade but also to master the subject.

The lower bell curve, well, those are the students who think this is kindergarten; they are somewhat ashamed they couldn’t get into a better school but they don’t care all that much about what goes on in class. They are used to squishy America, where, as Barone rewords the old Soviet plaint, “They pretend to teach us and we pretend to learn.” They simply don’t know what else to do, although some run minor scams – getting money from the government on the understanding they are going to school. Well, they usually are, for the first day or two of each class. They fail, but it is less drowning than floundering. Or most like digging holes – after a while, the quantity of flunked classes has made one so deep they can never crawl out.

Some arrive from Hard America, hardened before they hit college. They work & have worked. To them, it is important we are cheaper, courses transfer, and our campus is accessible. Some didn’t get into the 4-year college they wanted; they weren’t serious enough in high school. Only on graduation did they realize how hard the world is. Sometimes they need a remedial class or two; the hardened ones don’t complain – they want to be brought up to speed. The soft ones see those classes as “wasted” since they don’t transfer. Exactly how they themselves will transfer without the skills is a question that occurs to those in the Hard bell and not those in the Soft.

The D’s and F’s aren’t much into questioning; they’re into drifting. In transition. they often live in Soft America, where the government or their parents finance them, though some work at jobs far more than at school and see only the diploma as important. They aren’t ready for college – and the not readiness has little to do with their skills at reading, writing or arithmetic. They aren’t ready in more fundamental, personal ways. Some do a walk-on in the first days so we don’t take them off the roster; some continue erratically but by mid-semester haven’t bought the texts. They are the ones seeking a “college experience” rather than a “college education.” Our local singer/songwriter culture is defined by this particular “experience.” (Pat Green rode in on that wave, but he’s not the only one. Django Walker’s follows in his daddy’s footsteps with “College Life”; Robert Earl Keene, Lovett’s old roommate, captures our local culture with “Fightin’ texas aggie.”)

In advising (I do that every other semester for a few hours) we see those dispirited, dull kids – ones who are embarrassed & pained and just want out of our offices. Those on scho pro have to see someone – which makes for a series of rather unpleasant conferences. They voice bizarre strategies I don’t think even they think will work. For instance, they aren’t going to pull up forty hours averaging 1.5 to a 3.0 by acing the 15 they’re signed up for next semester, even granting the pollyanish notion they are going to ace them. No wonder they flunk math. One explained to me that his grades were better than Bush’s – I pointed out that Bush’s might not have been something to write home about, but in three years he had accumulated a good deal more than one 3-hour credit. They end up with averages below 1.0 by taking courses for which they aren’t equipped and know it, classes they hate, and most often, classes they never attend. They are embarrassed and unhappy. I understand, since I seldom floss and each appointment with the dentist is a reckoning about that. But their ennui and cluelessness sometimes suffocates.

Worn out with such evasions a few semesters ago, I snapped. A girl was begging me to let her do something to bring up her grade in my class – a class she seldom attended, even on test days. It was the end of the semester, but she was less frantic than resigned. I turned to her: “You aren’t taking my class, you’re never there,” I said: “You’re pretending to take the class. You’re pretending to be in school.” She looked at me, shocked. This is not the sort of thing we are supposed to say. But she slowly nodded. “Yes,” she said, “I guess I am.” The truth was that she had a job with some real responsibility and a nice paycheck. She liked it. But her parents wanted her to be like her brother, who was getting great grades across town and would graduate that spring. She needed to draw the line between what she could do and couldn’t, what she wanted and didn’t – and to disentangle what her parents wanted from what she did. My class was a distraction. It’s true – if the post modernists were actually correct in their vision of the world, what she was doing was no different from what my better students were doing. Each performed a role as a student. But they aren’t correct and she was no student.

There are a lot of Allens out there. We sometimes forget the paths of these students are ancient ones – not inevitable, not universal, but archetypal. Some of us enjoy the contemplative, some the active. And there are rhythms. Through the ages, women first turn inward, toward relationships & the home, bear & raise children. Then, with the children grown, they take on responsibilities, moving from the personal to the public, from nurturer to leader. A man’s path is also ancient – assertive, active, & public followed by a mellowed & contemplative maturity. I think we have too often forgotten those great old biological cycles.

Traditionally, the military has prodded soldiers to live up to a potential hidden in their blue-collar lives. The quite brilliant father of one of my oldest daughter’s friends came out of a Philadelphia family that didn’t expect much of him; the Air Force somehow saw more: it challenged, then awarded accomplishment. He finally retired, leaving with a high rank, a Ph.D. and marketable skills. Another example was a guy I dated as an undergrad. The son of coal-mining immigrants (again in Pennsylvania), he didn’t finish high school. Something of a troublemaker, he was encouraged to join the Air Force to shape up. There, in the late fifties, he did, leaving the service with a pile of course credits. He graduated from Scranton, came to Nebraska for a M.A. under a renowned medievalist, then on to Brown for his Ph.D. He’s apparently been teaching & publishing ever since. He isn’t famous, but he has staked out a quite different path for himself than anybody in Old Forge in, say, 1960, would have thought. The number of friends who flunked out (or practically flunked out) their first year and rose to become professionals and scholars is long.

It isn’t just guys that aren’t ready. The path of one of my most interesting, intelligent & hard working colleague’s may seem quite different (her ex-husband was a TABC detective, she is strongly Baptist in her beliefs and has not, I suspect, dropped acid at any time, let alone on a regular basis). She didn’t flunk out, but never started. She grew up in a large family; many have done remarkably well, but money for college would not have been easy. She married early, found less and less in common with her husband as they grew older and she became wiser. They shared three children and she stayed with him during the long years of child raising. She began at the local junior college, loving the work and piling up good grades. As her last child started applying to colleges, she found herself ready to fly from that particular nest. She moved on to a four-year school and then to grad school, where she was highly respected.

Women, too, are distracted, the hormones sometimes confusing the gray matter. Generally, our crowd in college was young – younger than most. The records implied our intellect had been somewhat disciplined, stored with facts; however, the first few years showed that the effort we’d spent on our minds had ill-prepared us to manage our time, our relationships, ourselves. A remarkable percentage of us dropped out along the way; I almost did.

Each of my classes at junior college level have a few of these second or third acts: Mothers whose children are now independent and doing quite well academically as the mothers nurtured their own minds as well as theirs; Veterans who have learned their strengths & exercised their muscles, meanwhile learning to problem-solve in the world as they will in their literature. These students are treasured, their papers ones we look forward to reading, their quiet, perceptive comments in class make our day. And they bring life with them. One day, I was teaching Donne’s masterful “Valediction: Forbidding Weeping.” A woman prefaced her remark about the poem’s wit & submerged passion, “After thirty-three years of marriage, I think I’ve come to see this. . . ” When she finished, I looked at a student who was clearly engaged, asking him what he wanted to say; “What can I say, I haven’t been around thirty-three years” he responded – more in awe than irony.

Our junior college is useful; we have grown for many reasons. Not the least of these is our relationship with the research school across town. That school is land grant and huge. They don’t want to waste resources on such teacher-intensive areas as core-level speech, language, and composition as well as science labs. And I suspect they realize some of those students they have weeded out through high school grades & scores may, indeed, be students they want. So, they encourage them to come to us so we can do a second weeding. Those that survive us with B averages are likely to maintain B averages there – those that are much below probably can’t cut the mustard.

“Beware of the Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations” – Bush’s pithy notice is on the door of my colleague, not surprisingly the mother of three who turned to college in maturity. It isn’t a bad slogan for a junior college. Barone notes that this philosophy comes from an understanding “that schools without Hard standards hurt poor and black children the most, since these students tended not to come from homes where learning was valued and reading encouraged “ (117) We are where Soft America and Hard America meet. We are inexpensive, open admissions, accessible. Our counselors are quite willing to make all sorts of “accommodations.” But our job is to challenge the student who has come to us for redemption, for rebirth, for challenge.

We will only retain our usefulness – not just to the big school across town but also to our best students – if we retain our ability to harden, to choose, to weed out. Part of being “Hard” may be letting people fail, but part of America is second acts. They aren’t mutually exclusive. Our job is to keep the challenge fairly high – and to let our students measure themselves against it. Implicit in soft bigotry is a lack of respect. Our job, of course, is to respect our students and our subject. We do no favors if we lose our ability to harden. A grade from us should mean something – that the student has mastered the content of and skills of the classroom. In the last pages of his book, Barone speaks of duty & honor & challenge – and the pleasure all give.

Our system is not so much broken as inefficient. We need an interim period where work that is challenging and useful can harden those eighteen-year-olds, harden & deepen their abilities to understand themselves, to manage time & money & passion. For many, eighteen is too long in high school but too early for college. If it is our job to do, we’ll do it. If we are lucky, they bring to us their minds and through that we can help them understand themselves better. But, well, we can’t do all that much with the body or the passions.

We mature at different paces. Thoreau – not the best analyst of maturity – got this right. And even if the students that came to us were all 20 or older, had all gone through a hardening initiation after high school and before enrolling – even then, it will still be the wrong time for some. Such a realization is, of course, a step toward growing up. It isn’t easy to accept our limitations and use our strengths well. But hardening is growing up & with maturity comes a sense of self, a confidence. And we are one of those places where that can begin.

  1. I graduated from a UC with a BSEE. A couple of guys I graduated with spent their first couple years at the local JC’s then 2.5-3 years at the UC. All they missed was two years of beer and about $10k in debt.

    On the other hand, alot of people from my high school continued on to that same JC just so their parents would continue to pay their car insurance.

  2. I didn’t know it helped with car insurance – suppose it depends on the policy. Health insurance, too, is a big draw. That I hear from students all the time; they won’t withdraw even though they are flunking. I’m not sure why insurance can’t be linked to age rather than school – it sure would clear out some of those people who never intend to attend class.

  3. A very interesting post.

    I’m impressed that you’re teaching Donne in jr college..I wonder how many students get him at Harvard?

    And wasn’t it Plato who said no one should be permitted to study philosophy until they were at least 30?

  4. Your experience tracks with that of my girlfriend. She is from a Russian immigrant family, the oldest of ten kids. She finished high school as a home schooler because they needed her to help with the other kids. College wasn’t an option at 17 and later she was working too hard to go. Finally, at 22, right before I met her she decided it was time. Her biggest surprise and disappointment so far has been the apathy of so many American students. She started a Social Studies 102 class this last semester with 43 students. She was told that the class is notorious for bad grades and drop outs. She finished with an A and only 4 students still attending the class. The class consists primarily of essay writing work and following professorial instructions (i.e. just do all your work and you will do well, but only a tenth could hack that).
    She’s now transfering to a four-year university and has some hope that she’ll meet a more dedicated student body. I’m afraid she may again be disappointed.
    She did all this while working full time and what really gets her down is that the apathetic students often don’t even have the excuse of a job for their performance.

  5. Elam Bend – I can repeat after your GF almost word-to-word.

    I, too, am an immigrant, decided to start my education anew after having BS in Engineering from Russia, attended my second college in NY, in the 90’s, when I was 30. Only 3 more students in my class were of my age; one dropped out in the 3rd semester after repeatedly playing a race card as an explanation for chronic unpreparedness, the rest graduated with high score and as far as I know, all work successfully in the field. Can’t say that of my younger classmates.
    During college I worked full time most of the time – I had a family to support and nobody was helping me. I was in awe of my classmates: with excellent, native English, portfolios developed years in advance, plenty of money to blew on beer parties and more, having no children to raise, and always complaining there is too much work assigned.

    Couple of years ago, on a lighting seminar in WI, I met a person who’s story stuck with me for some reason. She was a praised sales rep for a big lighting Co, excellent record and plenty of commissions; in her early 30’s, she said she’s very happy with her present state in life. To get there, though, she went to:
    -4yr program of Marine Biology, didn’t graduate
    -painted for 5 yrs and lived on what her parents could spare for her
    -borrowed money to start an art gallery to sell her own and other’s work; failed
    -to pay off her debt, found a job as an office assistant in this lighting Co – the rest was a natural ascent: she found herself. When I talked to her, she was planning to go for an MBA.

    I wish I could explain this all to my own son so it would really register…

  6. “When I talked to her, she was planning to go for an MBA”…and, having had experience as a commissioned sales rep, she will be significantly differentiated from those MBA grads whose experience is in less-measurable aspects of business.

  7. Ginny,

    regarding the students going to JC for insurance, there weren’t any gov’t regs involved. It’s just that many parents refused to pay the kids car insurance, car payment, etc. if the kid wasn’t going to school, so many kids went to the JC for the sole purpose of being enrolled and having their parents continue to subsidize their lifestyle.

    With regard to hard/soft america in Education, I think alot of people are completely missing the real story.

    Student bodies at universities today are more or less divided into two groups. I’d say the demarcation is between fields that are objective and those that are subjective.

    The first group is composed of students that need and want a relevant job when they leave school. Most of these people are in engineering/CS, (most of the people in engineering/CS, in fact, want and need a job when they are through.) The same can be said for accounting majors. There are also a few from the sciences and from the area of finance/econ/business.

    The second are the group that don’t really need jobs or just don’t want to think about it while they are in school. They are generally in the humanities, although alot of them end up in the college of business.

    My experience was that people from the first group worked about 3-4X harder during their undergrad than people from the 2nd and unless they had the ability to go into sales, people from the 2nd group were left with only a few employment options, one of which was law school.

    That’s a big reason Law School has the reputation of being so hard, because the students have never had to study before and they’ve never been in any competitive classes. Ask any lawyer who had a decent Bachelors in engineering how hard law school was and they’ll tell you it was challenging, but not the worst they’d seen.

    I think on a school to school basis this breakdown may vary. At some schools the vast majority of business majors may fall into the first group, at others they fall into the 2nd. There are some liberal arts schools where the humanities are taken very seriously and even at larger schools there will always be a few very bright and hard-working students for who the humanities are a vocation. But by and large, this is the breakdown I saw in higher education.

    It’s worth noting that most of the foreign students end up in the first group. It’s also worth noting that with the easy access to student loans, alot of kids that probably don’t belong in higher ed end up at school because it’s a nice alternative to working. All of these end up in the 2nd group.

    I suppose this all ties in with the ideas that A) higher ed today is largely vocational training rather than higher ed and B) that americans today are increasingly overschooled and underworked. A good mechanic will make $50k+ a year at the age of 20 with very little debt. A humanities student will make $30k+ with $20k+ debt.

  8. I really think one of the tragedies of american education has been the careful throttling of vocational ed classes over the last forty years or so. So very many kids go to college because they simply cannot think of what else they should do.

  9. Sounds like at jr college, the big deal isn’t *getting in* but rather *succeeding once you’re in*. This is almost the polar opposite of 4-yr college–particularly the “elite” ones–where it increasingly seems that the big deal is the acceptance letter, but the next 4 years is time to kick back and recover from the strain of the getting-in campaign.

    I’ve alway been impressed with Drucker’s point that it is very harmul to judge people on potential rather than performance–and it seems to me that the error is increasingly what higher ed is all about.

  10. GFK

    I didn’t think it was law, but some insurance companies apparently make the distinction (though it may be by way of IRS dependency of a student & not if not). And it may have to do with choices their employers made in choosing health programs.

    I think you are right about the two ways, but remember you are talking to someone who was liberal arts, as was my husband, my two older daughters & their husbands. I really believe that liberal arts can be both challenging & useful. I don’t think the world owes us a living, but I do think all of us have and will continue to contribute to the overall good.

    That is, of course, another good thing about junior colleges – we offer many terminal degrees and people often graduate with jobs – jobs with higher salaries than the liberal arts people will get with 4-year degrees.

    My father went to college in the dustbowl years, the son of blue collar & 1st generation parents. He took the route that seemed the most sensible – engineering. But he didn’t use his engineering degree most of his life. I’m not sure if he would have been happier but I suspect he’d have been a lot more useful to society if he’d gone the liberal arts route. (Well, that’s hard to know; bitterness is at least as much associated with liberal arts as with engineering.)

    Yes, Foster, I think that is an important distinction.

    I was not surprised to see a few years ago that a student had dishonestly gotten into Stanford by falsifying his background; when this was discovered, his grade average at Stanford was above that at the junior college he had previously attended. I suppose it doesn’t mean much – the kid was probably learning more, given the first class nature of Stanford’s faculty. But clearly such schools have eliminated some of the tension & I suspect competitive drive by grade inflation.

    And I haven’t been all that impressed by people who point out that the average student at a good school is like the top at ours – of course, that is true; we seldom see anyone with perfect SATs (advising, I did run across a guy with 800 on math who’d flunked out of his 4-year school but that is rare, of course – & his flunking says he was not the kind of student Stanford would want.)

    I thought the whole point of saying someone has a 3.5 at Stanford (emphasizing the Stanford) was that in that challenging environment, next to high level peers, the student was doing well. Of course, the student did better than ours; even those students that turn out to be great have come here to get them up to the speed at which better students were already comfortably coasting. But part of what parents think they are purchasing with that more expensive tuition is a standard much higher than the one we use.

  11. Ginny, a couple of comments:

    First, 4-yr university has changed in the last 30 years. When my parents went to state universities, they paid their tuition by working. Now the costs are not only deferred via loans, but also quite hidden to the student who at 18 has little concept of debt. So I think 30 years ago students of the humanities were more aware of the economic trade-offs and made their decision because they liked the feild, not because it afforded them more free-time.

    2nd, the humanities have changed. Looking back, I for one, would have rather have studied finance and economics than engineering, but I could never have studied the humanities: my experiences with liberal humanity teachers & professors from high school on were so negative I just couldn’t stomach it.

    3rd, Stanford GPA’s were meaningless. You can take any class an unlimited number of times and their GPA still gets calculated using the highest grade. I think Ivy League schools are similar.

    Good talking to you. Where are you at? Fredricksburg?

  12. There are so many conflicting aspects to this whole education business, including the fact that it is and isn’t a business all at the same time, that I admire and have nothing but good wishes for anyone willing to have a go at it, either as a student, teacher, or administrator.

    My college son is now my college graduate son, recently receiving degrees in History and Secondary Ed. (Summa cum laude—I know I shouldn’t brag, but he’s my kid) Since high school, he has known he wanted to teach and coach at that level, although we’ve talked about his going on to grad school in a while.

    The reason I bring this up is that he went through school paying his own way, working and obtaining scholarships, and never once asked for any money from us. He knew we had his younger brother and sister to get through high school, and that they were going to a private prep school similar to the one he attended.

    So he took care of himself, the hard way, even though he was in “the soft world” in this dichotomy.

    We’ve talked about the problems in education, and he realizes that his views on high level achievement are not very popular in the educational community.

    But, as Barone and others have noted, the reality of the world comes crashing through the soft bubble we try to create around our youth eventually, and many are left stunned and helpless by the shock of realizing their feelings mean nothing, that results actually do matter, and that being told you’re just not cutting it is not the end of the universe.

    Indeed, having someone finally tell you some harsh truths, calmly and brutally, is sometimes as valuable an education as any number of fuzzy seminars on philosophical problems or sociological mysteries.

    Respect, both from others and from within oneself, must be earned by the hard currency of diligent effort and honest assessment of results.

    Perhaps, on Memorial Day, it is well to remember those whose lot was to give their all early, in their youth, in causes great, or all but forgotten. Most of our lives are not so dramatic, our battles figurative and metaphorical.

    The example, however, is always there, and always valid. The inspiration of courage and dedication, even unto death, is that we must try to do our small part each day. And if we teach our children to win their little battles with humility, and be gracious when they lose, as they certainly will on occasion, then we can stand straight when the anthem is played, and sing that this still is the land of the free, and the home of the brave.

  13. I teach in a veterinary college with students who are arguably the best and the brightest America produces; but my first post-PhD job was teaching in a community college, where my students were divided into two groups: the quick and the dead. I too was shocked on seeing the “normal” grade distribution on my first exam. A colleague explained to me how things were, and said “Don’t worry about that. It’s what we call ‘the brassiere curve’: round and both ends and flat in the middle.”

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