Introductory Political Science Teaching
Van Nuys, California 1997
About ten years ago, attending an Americanized Irish wake for an elderly father of a friend and colleague of mine who had become a senior administrator in the District, I was asked by other former Valley College colleagues, "How goes the old college." Already a 25 year veteran of the campus, and one that had participated in many of the activities and actions of the "60s," my liberal and progressive credentials, I thought, were impeccable.
Yet when I observed that the character of the student body had profoundly changed during my 25 years in the classroom, with more and more recent immigrants now attending Valley College, class room teaching had become more challenging and less academic than it had been. Teaching was still extremely exciting and personally rewarding; but it was not the same as it had once been. In fact, I emphasized, large numbers of our students were totally unprepared to function effectively in an English language college environment.
Amazingly, though not so much now in retrospect, I was chastened with the comment, "I never thought I would hear something like that from you." That comment, both its source and the manner it was thrown at me, stuck with and bothered me for some length of time. I was truly puzzled at their criticism to my objective response. What had I said, what had I done that elicited such disapproval? In my apparent naivete, I didn’t even realize that I had violated one of the basic rules of political correctness, telling the truth. I didn’t even know what political correctness was.II Introductory Political Science, Poly Sci 1, is one of those few college classes that most every student has to take. Aside from the occasional Political Science or History, or Law major, or the intellectually curious, most of our students are those required to take Political Science in order to graduate, to successfully transfer to a four-year institution, or to complete some certificate program. While none of the courses offered in the HHLPS (History, Humanities, Law & Political Science) department have any pre-requisites, including literacy in English, many of the department’s more advanced offerings only attract those students interested in that particular subject: Ethnic America, Comparative Governments; Political Theory, Economic History of the United States, Asian History, Religion in America; etc. Public and private colleges and universities in the State of California, as often elsewhere in the United States, mandate that students must take a certain number of American Institutions courses in order to receive a basic degree, regardless of the student’s major. Typically, as near as I can ascertain, the American Institutions requirement is primarily met with what LA Valley College calls Political Science 1, History 11, and History 12 (both of which are United States History, separated by 1876/77), as well as a few other alternatives. Unlike the College’s various Science, English and Math departments, all of which have certain pre-requisites for most or all of their classes, the HHLPS department has no pre-requisites, including, if I may repeat myself, one called English literacy. Certainly, to successfully take an English 1 or 2 (the basic combination) class, one should have to be reasonably literate in English. That is no surprise, and it seems quite reasonable to most folks. Yet, to take United States History and/or Political Science, no English literacy test can be proffered. It is actually forbidden. But in what language should we read the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, its Bill of Rights and its 14th Amendment as well as all the subsequent Court Cases that have expanded the originally narrow definition of citizen, of liberty, of equal rights and equal opportunity? The Los Angeles Community College District forbids such a basic English literacy test for entering any of the HHLPS Department classes. You figure. III Thus, the typical Political Science 1 class is probably the most ethnically and otherwise diverse classroom, at any given hour, on campus. Recently, for example, I counted 22 different countries of origin, not counting New Jersey, out of a class of 45 students. Almost always, the number is more than I/3 of the total. I know this, because I ask. Whether or not I am always told the truth, is another matter.
It certainly is a challenge to the professor to instruct such a mix of students. No question about it; and I can easily appreciate how some might wish they were teaching at UCLA, at the University of Chicago, or at Oxford. But they are not; we are not. We are at Los Angeles Valley College, Van Nuys, California.The immediate problem confronting urban Community College instructors in general is the dramatic and traumatic demographic change in the composition of the community colleges’ student body. The Los Angeles Community College District, certainly Los Angeles Valley College, bears little resemblance to the District of one or two generations, 20 or 40 years, ago. While dynamic change has always been a central characteristic of American national life, the accelerating rate of that change since the Second World War has impacted America’s great urban centers the most, and in ways rarely beneficial. Perhaps nowhere have these changes become more obvious and demanding than in the greater Los Angeles area of which our community colleges are a part. According to demographic numbers recently released by Matriculation/ Research of LA Valley College, only 25% of our students are "full time," taking 12 units or more; and a mere 18% are under age 20. Clearly, a small percentage of Valley’s students are stereotypical American college students. More, over 50% are 25 and older, with almost half of those older than 35. Lastly, 40% take 6 units or less. The majority of our students are older, working people responsible for their own economic and family obligations. Thirty-eight percent are "Whites," whatever that political construction currently means. And it means Muslim and Coptic Egyptians; Syrian and Assyrian Christians; Israelis of various European or North African ancestry; Lebanese, Iranians and Persians of several religious affiliations; Armenians from lots of places, excluding Fresno, in addition to those from the former Soviet Armenia; all kinds of Russians, Ukrainians, and Beorussians, secular, Christians and Jews, from all parts of the former USSR; and that is simply part of what is currently called "white," or a category even more absurd, "Anglo." And I haven’t even mentioned New Jerseyites, or Kurds, or Azaris. Thirty-one percent are "Hispanic," another politically motivated designation that has little to do with real-life, class room circumstances: Cubans, Guatemalans, Mayans, Puerto Ricans from New Jersey; New Mexicans of partial Apache persuasion; third and fourth and fifth generation southern Californians, Salvadoran computer programmers; Mexicanos from all classes, regions, ethnic identity, including indigenous. Uruguay? Chile? Columbia and Peru? Give us a break: "Hispanic" makes about as much sense to those of us in the classroom as does "White," or "Anglo." None. Ditto with "Asians," at 15%; "Blacks," at 7%; "Others," at 3%; and the great "Unknown," at 6%. IV Well, the point of this essay, aside from the opportunity to ridicule the current politically agendized ethnic classification scheme, is to demonstrate that Valley College’s student body bears no resemblance whatsoever to some idealized and stereotypical view of an "American college student." Yesterdays’ educational and administrative philosophies, teacher preparations and expectations, and the increasing centralized managerial bureaucracy’s remoteness from the classroom are all clearly failing the challenge of contemporary urban community college education. As classroom instructors who daily confront the growing inadequacies of our educational establishment’s response, it does little good to pretend our world to be otherwise, to engage in political sloganeering, or to even castigate and finger point. We must learn to deal with what is before us. And what is before us, in our classrooms, is a demographic mix, nationality, religion, ethnicity, language, literacy, intelligence, age, class, generation, geographic, gender, and other persuasions, too varied to categorize. Still, the vast majority of our students are Americans, whatever that means; or they are in various stages of becoming American, whatever that will mean. As such, they have every right to be here, and every right to expect from us the very best we can do for them. They are going to be an important part of America’s future. Our own self interest, as Americans who must also live in that future, requires us to educate, to prepare, to expose, to challenge them. I am not suggesting that we eschew any and all academic standards in some drive to maintain numbers and to draw additional moneys from the state government in Sacramento. We do none of our students a favor by pretending to be a college, while making assignments and passing out grades as if we were part of the notorious LA Unified District’s, and urban public schools’ generally, "dumbing down" policy. To be sure, classroom instructors must oppose all attempts at equal outcome based objectives. Either we maintain standards, or we can kiss public education as we have known it good-bye. I have taught in Chicago public secondary schools and in adult education schools. I do not wish to see Valley College, the urban community colleges generally, decline to another adult education school system. We have to take the students as we find them, particularly with an open door admission policy, and most particularly with a no prerequisite policy for Political Science classes, not even literacy in the English language. We have to take them and do the very best we can for them, as members of the community by whom we are employed, and with whom we have a social contract. And who, remember, represent the future of our country just as much as those students who graduate from the elite schools. We can do it. Not every student will pass the first time they take the class. Perhaps, many will never pass. "So it goes." But we should never drive students out of the class, without giving them a chance to experience our teaching methods, our philosophies, our knowledge and our experience. While many of the instructors have embraced the changing student population with enthusiasm, other have not been able to do so. And their disservice to the students is also a disservice to themselves. It cannot be pleasant to see the disastrous attrition they suffer each semester. Either one must blame the students, or question one’s own teaching. Since the latter is extremely difficult after a certain age, people generally favor the former. And, of course, that way lies not only rigidity, but a necessarily great dissatisfaction with one’s job, with one’s career, possibly with one’s life. V
From the beginnings of the Republic, numerous foreign, upper class, educated observers of American life, its politics, society, culture, have criticized what they perceived as excessive democracy, an ignorant disregard for established tradition, a deliberate disrespect for legitimate authorities and authority. Sometimes it has been described as mob rule, as anarchy. Perhaps. But also from the beginnings of the Republic, there have been as many voices calling for a more radical extension of the democratic, egalitarian, and anti-authoritarian ideals of the American Revolutionary period.This latter tradition has been most common in America’s experiment in mass public education, and which, since the Second World War, has been especially extended into the urban community colleges. It is an environment not made for everyone. Boards of Trustees, teacher unions, district administrators, centralized bureaucracies, some of the public, and of the students, as well as some of the professors, are clearly not committed, regardless of their rhetoric, to this great egalitarian experiment.
It is extremely difficult to change the values, the ideals, or the habits of a lifetime. And I am not suggesting that one should. Folks are what they are, and they have every right to be such. However, when the way a person is, and chooses to remain so, manifests itself in behavior that interferes with the task at hand, then something has to give.
Lawrence C. Jorgensen