Lately I find myself looking back toward people and events that allowed me – a discharged Army PFC and a college dropout – to become a Ph.D. and a writer.
Every memory I explore seems to lead me back to Bakersfield (community) College, where I was given a second academic chance. Fifty-plus years ago when I matriculated, expenses were minimal, but that is no longer true. As a result, President Barack Obama’s proposal to make community college tuition-free for many students seems to be a wise investment in America’s future, especially now that California is going to allow 15 community colleges to grant bachelor’s degrees.
At the junior college in Bakersfield in the early 1960s, then later at two California State University campuses, my wife and I were able to work and put one another through school. That experience expanded our sense of the possible and eventually made advanced degrees reasonable goals.
Like many other students then, we were naive about higher education. The first time I heard a professor referred to as “doctor,” I assumed she was a physician and couldn’t figure out why she was teaching English. Eventually, sometimes despite warnings from our older generation (“School doesn’t teach you everything!”), many of us opened to new possibilities.
The president’s proposal is ambitious indeed, since it seeks to enrich family and cultural traditions, and thus shift society. Many of my classmates at Bakersfield were what we then called Okies, first-generation Southwestern and Midwestern migrants of all colors, whose families had not been exposed to higher education.
One pal, Jim Wren, told me that his Oklahoma-born parents had to be convinced by the track coach to let him attend community college. Another, Jim Young, who played football, said his parents only allowed him to attend junior college if he was granted time off to pick cotton. Wren became a high school principal in Bakersfield. Young later became president of Bakersfield College.
The idea, suggested by some, that that middle-class families already have the option of saving thousands of dollars to send their kids to college depends, I guess, on how one defines middle class and working class and lower class.
I’m most concerned with those who do have the brains but don’t have the economic resources to attend college. Free public education has proven essential to the health of our society. One of the ideas that grabbed me was Thomas Jefferson’s distinction between an elitist “aristocracy of birth” versus a democratic “aristocracy of worth.”
The lesson was that we must cultivate our best minds from all classes and groups of people. Nevertheless, I still occasionally encounter folks who believe they were born inherently superior because their great-grandparents achieved wealth. It seems to me to be too bad that every generation can’t start from scratch and actually prove superiority in the classroom or the workplace.
Some of the most competent people I’ve ever known were the noncommissioned officers who led my unit when I was a soldier. None were college graduates, but all could have been, I’m certain. Most had emerged from levels of society that didn’t include college among its expectations. To me they proved that what we become is more important than where we start, and I’ve found that community college can help jump-start a career for those of little means and scant academic tradition.
As a result, I’ll be supporting some variation of the president’s proposal. I’m pleased that he includes occupational training programs as well as more traditionally academic ones, and that his proposal would be a “last-dollar” program that kicks in only after all other financial sources have been tapped.
With 7.7 million Americans currently attending community colleges, a program that provides free tuition and reduced fees promises to have an immediate social and economic impact. By itself such a proposal won’t remedy the culture of poverty, but it’s one more step toward equality.
For our community’s health, we should find a way to invite more students into higher education and to reduce or eliminate their debt burdens, not merely for their convenience but for ours. Tennessee’s current free community college program, Tennessee Promise, offers an excellent model. Like that program, the president’s proposal should help students think of themselves as university candidates and encourage them to stay in school. After that, we can stand back and see what an aristocracy of worth can achieve.
Gerald Haslam is an author who has been called the “quintessential California writer.”