Apr 12, 2023
Ted Hazdi-Antich with good news:
Yesterday, I met with two students interested in starting a club to discuss philosophy and ideas outside of class: a recent immigrant from Nigeria, enrolled in a nursing program, and a Texan pursuing a degree in computer science while working at a factory that manufactures diesel engines. We met in a common area on our campus—a tastefully renovated shopping mall built in the 1980s—to discuss the fourth part of the third book of Aristotle’s Politics, where Aristotle considers if the good citizen and the good man are one and the same (spoiler alert: they are not). There’s a tension, we noted, between moral goodness as defined by the polity and culture of which one is a part and a standard of human morality that may sit outside of and above these; we explored the cultural and political differences between Nigeria and the United States by way of example. At one point, a student milling about the common area felt compelled to join us without any invitation, though he knew he’d be welcome. The conversation lasted about two and a half hours; we plan to meet again in a few weeks to discuss the Grand Inquisitor section of The Brothers Karamazov.
Today, there is a resurgence of discussion-based courses like Great Questions at community colleges, standing in stark contrast to the apparent doom and gloom of the humanities in the Ivy League. Consider the Core Books program at Hostos Community College in the Bronx, the constellation of Cornerstone programs at institutions like Linn-Benton Community College in Oregon—both of which, like Great Questions, received funding from the Teagle Foundation—or the NEH-funded BLAST partnership between St. John’s College and Anne Arundel Community College in Maryland. I lead a new nonprofit, the Great Questions Foundation, aimed at helping community college faculty incorporate humanistic pedagogy into their courses; at our first curriculum-redesign workshops eighteen community college teachers from ten different institutions worked together to bring texts like Plato’s Republic, Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time into their classrooms. We must encourage community college leaders to grow and sustain the humanities programs under their protection, many of which have been seeded by private funding; the future of liberal education may depend upon it.
Indeed, despite the dire reports of the state of the humanities, there is a humanistic revival in higher education underway—it’s just happening where few commentators think to look. Community colleges might very well be the best place for this revival. Almost half of undergraduates in the U.S. attend community colleges, and over half of all B.A. recipients start out at one. (More than ever before, students complete their gen-ed requirements there for a fair price before transferring to a university.) Increasingly, community college is where most students will gain the benefits of a liberal education, especially those who will pursue STEM or preprofessional majors at the universities to which they transfer, where their coursework is not likely to include classes in the humanities. The explosive growth of dual-enrollment programs also presents a unique opportunity to introduce hundreds of thousands of bright and ambitious high school students to humanistic learning and to shape their expectations of an undergraduate education as something more than just preparation for a career.