A recent discussion on the SACC-L listserv shows promise that community college anthropology and the social sciences might play a vital role in bridging the national disconnect in public education today: underfunding all levels of education while a majority of high school graduates are underprepared for college.
Brian Lynch reports that students in his anthropology and sociology classes ask, with genuine puzzlement, “What is wrong with colonialism?…Isn’t it just the natural order of things that the global capitalist system brings indigenous people into the modern age?” Brian states further, “I am getting these kinds of questions, not as ideological challenges to anything I am saying (nor as adversarial political positions) but simply as reflections of taken-for-granted world views. In this mode, things that I’ve been able to discuss and explore in years past—like critical questioning of the idea of cultural evolution or the nature of historical ‘progress’—now seem like absolute foreign languages to many students. It is an interesting time in which to be teaching anthropology and sociology!”
Other listserv participants shared their own classroom experiences and contributed some helpful resources, including the comic satire of the late Flip Wilson, “Cowboys and Colored People”, and Monty Python’s “Life of Brian;” films such as “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” “First Contact,” “The End of Poverty”, John Pilger’s “Life and Debt,” and Marilyn Waring’s “Who Counts.” Reading material includes “Contextual Economics and a World of Well-being: An Interview with Neva Goodwin“, Lappe and Collins’ article “Why Can’t People Feed Themselves?”, John Bodley’s text, Cultural Anthropology: Tribes, States and the Global System, and David Graeber’s Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology.
Brian also provides an important example of how students are influenced to remain ignorant about social and cultural realities that are often left out of educational discussions.
Only months ago I would have never thought [it possible that] political candidates [would be] given even a moment of serious consideration as they promote the idea of birth control as a matter for ‘culture wars,’ concern for the environment as some sort of theological extremism, elimination of child labor laws, elimination of collective bargaining rights, dismantling of public education…. These are making their way into mainstream discourse as somehow reasonable challenges, and in many places in the US, those who are hardest hit by the endemic inequality of our current system are also embracing such questions and challenges (whether they call themselves “Tea Party” or not). In this context, more students seem to be hearing things like ‘colonialism,’ or ‘ethnocentrism,’ or ‘diversity,’ ….at best as quaint terminology of the past; if not, at worst, as left-wing ideological drivel.
My home state of Iowa can exemplify public education’s conundrum. In 2010, while student composite ACT scores were second highest in the nation, studies showed that only 30% of the students were prepared to do college work in English, math, reading and the sciences.
Meanwhile, the University of Northern Iowa, claiming a severe budget crisis, has proposed to close its laboratory school that has long provided education students with hands-on teacher training. And the governor and Republican legislators propose to increase for-profit charter schools that offer complete online education—students need never set foot in a classroom!—as well as reform measures that rely heavily on mandatory teacher evaluations each year and abolishment of the seniority system of job protection.
In the current economy, I hold little hope for increased funding or wisdom from our political leaders. And frankly, any K-12 reforms that increase college preparedness in basic academic skills would probably fall short in areas of social science knowledge, due to bureaucracy, local politics and a host of other reasons.
Thus, the torch is passed to community colleges, that—despite our own funding limitations, over-use of adjunct faculty, and general paucity of anthropology—teach about half of America’s undergraduate students. While we’re training our charges for future job markets (thanks, hopefully, to President Obama’s proposed eight-billion-dollar allocation), we have the most important task of also educating them about the way the global world goes around. And, as the SACC-L discussion suggests, we’re up to the job.