It was September 1969, the first day of the Fall Semester, and I was teaching Introduction to Sociology at Atlantic Community College. After class, one of the Vietnam veterans approached me and asked in a low voice, “Is it okay if I always sit with my back against a wall?” “Of course,” I replied. “Wherever you are comfortable.” Many years later, I learned that Bill H. had become an art teacher at a regional high school. I thought of how he must have struggled to make the journey back from that long, terrible war.
During the second week when a night class met, I saw that an older woman was absent. We kept names and phone numbers for the night students, and I called her after I returned home. “Hi, Sally, I missed you tonight,” I said. “Is everything all right?” She hesitated and then said, “I decided I wasn’t going to make it in the course. You gave that short test and I thought I had failed.” First, I told her that she had done fine on the general information quiz that no one could fail. Then, I urged her to come back the following week. Sally did come back and ended the course with a strong grade. In later years, I met her in a local hospital where she was the supervising nurse on the floor.
Every class at ACC held a wide range of ages and backgrounds: veterans in their 20’s who had just returned from the Vietnam War; divorced women in their late 30’s and 40’s, seeking credentials to enter the work force; high school graduates of 18 and l9; and older men and women coming for professional credits in their fields. The student body was also a varied mix of race and ethnicity. Most students were working full or part-time to pay the tuition, and often were the first in their family to attend college. Today, student bodies are very similar. The average age at community colleges is 28 and the diverse students include high school graduates, veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars as well as divorced women switching from homemaker to income producer.
My years at ACC from the late 60’s to early 80’s taught me the reality of what the eminent sociologist, C. Wright Mills called “The Sociological Imagination”. Mills described the meeting of two lines intersecting — the personal biography of each individual crossing the time line of history and social change. The exact point at which they cross is for each woman and man their sociological imagination. I used this intriguing concept as the foundation of my teaching — and in writing essays since the l970’s. Mills’ emphasis was on developing “ a critical quality of mind” to reason and deal with one’s life in a changing world.
I saw my role as a teacher helping students weigh their lives, thinking and values within the larger scale of our society and what was happening around them. They were encouraged to draw from the knowledge presented in the course to question assumptions and myths. And to be open to alternative points of view. The basic textbooks were supplemented with outside readings and films. Classes were small, under 30, with questions and discussions as part of each session. Everyone was expected to participate. Once in a while, I still meet former students who tell me they learned “how to think” in Sociology l0l. I treasure that comment.
The late 60’s were a wrenching time of riots, burning cities, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. The nation was deeply divided over the growing Vietnam War. I approached the Dean of the college to talk about the need for a course on Race, Ethnicity, Prejudice and Discrimination. He asked me for a book to read and I gave him “The Concept of Race” by the anthropologist, Ashley Montague. He read it and suggested I prepare a syllabus. “The Individual and The Group became my signature course at the college with a second term on Minority Groups, Civil Liberties and Civil Rights”. Teaching subjects that were exploding all around us was an unbelievable experience for me and the students.
Another focus during my years at the college was “The Family” course taught against the background of the changing structure and roles of the American family. The Women’s movement had opened new vistas for girls in high school and college. It had also coincided with the economic demands for the two-paycheck family that saw married women with children entering the workforce in ever-increasing numbers. At the college, divorced women in their 30’s and 40’s were coming with important years of experience in child rearing, managing finances and running a household. However, that did not translate into credentials on a resume for the job search. They needed the college degree in nursing, computer science or law enforcement. Men’s roles were changing as well, although at a slower rate. Household duties of shopping, cooking and cleaning were still being done by the working wife in most families.
On January 14, 2015, Tom Hanks, famous actor, writer and producer wrote “I Owe It All to Community College” on the Opinion Page of the New York Times. He told his personal story of being an “underachieving student with lousy SAT scores” who couldn’t afford college tuition. In l974, Chabot Community College in California did not charge tuition and “accepted everyone”. Pull up his article on Google, and read of his experiences with teachers who cared about each student and inspired him to become a top student when he graduated with his Associate in Arts degree. He ends his own story with a segue to current life. “President Obama hopes to make two years of free community college accessible for up to nine million Americans. I’m guessing the new Congress will squawk at the $60 billion price tag, but I hope the idea sticks, because more veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan this time, as well as another generation of mothers, single parents and workers who have been out of the job market, need lower obstacles between now and the next chapter of their lives.”
On January 15, the lead editorial in The New York Times was “Expanding Community College Access”. “The president’s proposal deserves to be taken seriously by the public, state legislatures, municipal authorities and, of course Congress. The editorial closes with a very significant comparison to “the skepticism that greeted 19th century educators when they began to agitate for free, universal public high schools. Their efforts proved crucial at a time when the country was moving away from farming and toward a world in which reading, writing and reasoning would be critical. Expanded access to community college could do the same thing for the country in the information age.”