Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Educational classism and our broken state colleges

Deval Patrick is looking for $2 billion to renovate state college campuses:

[Corrected figure--Thanks, Henry!]

At Fitchburg State College, decades-old lead pipes in the science center mean students can't drink the water. Bunker Hill Community College hasn't added a building since it opened in 1973, forcing it to hold overflow classes late at night and on weekends. Salem State College has closed its 38-year-old library indefinitely because of fears its foundation is failing.

"When students and parents see Jersey barriers around the library, that's hard to explain," said Patricia Maguire Meservey, president of Salem State College. Newcomers to the college's science facilities, she said, feel as though "they are stepping back in time."

I'm a graduate of Salem State (class of '87) and I can confirm both these points. I had a work-study job at the library for the five years I was there. Even then, there were serious problems with the building. One year, the elevators had to be taken out of service: The roof over the elevator shaft leaked and seriously rusted one of the elevator cabs, at the top where the cables are attached.

The physics lab I had classes in had barely changed since Meier Hall was built in the '60's. The second-semester physics lab, which covered electromagnetic theory, used 30-year old voltohmmeters. They were in good shape, but I had newer tools at home as an electronics enthusiast. I and my lab supervisor probably would have preferred newer Fluke meters that are safer and less prone to being blown up or broken by clumsy students.

You'd think we'd want a good state college system with enough money to let those students on the wrong end of the economic scale (as I was then) have the same opportunities as Harvard-educated students, but that's not so.

Earlier this year, State Rep Doug Petersen (D-Marblehead), was speaking at a Swampscott School Committee earlier this year about school aid.

Quote via Pazdziernik:

When answering a question dealing with state aid and the disparity of aid between Swampscott and Lynn, Petersen said, “At no point has anyone from Swampscott ever called me, nor will they ever call me to get their child into a Lynn school,” Petersen said. He continued to say, a lot of Swampscott kids are going to be captains of industry someday and you want those Lynn kids to be educated because they are your future employees.

“The way I used the analogy was wrong and if I could take it back and do it again I certainly would,” Petersen said.

“I certainly wish I could have phrased it in a different way,” Petersen said. (State Rep. Petersen backpedals on insults to Lynn students by Henry J. Collins, The Daily Item)

Translation: He wishes that he hadn't spoken from his heart. There are things that no elected official can ever say out loud and this is one of them. But I have no doubt that, to a person, most if not all state elected officials have this same thought in mind.

(Rep. Petersen's Youtube appearance.)

In the early '90's, a few years after I graduated from Salem State, the Boston Globe wrote an editorial I was very upset with. The editorial--unfortunately locked up behind the paywall of Lexis--expressed gratitude that Massachusetts had both a concentration of prestigious private schools (Harvard, MIT, etc.) and a state college system, and that the graduates of these private schools had a state college system to turn out workers for them. In other words as best I remember: We have private schools to turn out entrepreneurs and public schools to turn out the little folk who work for these bigshots.

There wasn't a lot of outrage over that editorial, perhaps a letter or two. No doubt that Globe editorial spoke for a lot of people.

Another quote from LaborStandard.org:

That question leaps to the heart of the matter, and the answer is a not-so-simple: “No, of course not, but… yes.” No, the upper-class kids are not inherently better than their working class peers. The indignation of the Lynn parent is based on the democratic ideal that all Americans are created equal. Confronted by demeaning words, this parent demands respect for all the children of Lynn. It is an expression of stubborn pride and rebellion, not at all encouraged in America, at least not in the working class, and it deserves to be applauded.

Yet the reality is that while the Swampscott kids are no better, they will, in fact, lead better lives. They will, on the average, attend better schools with better-qualified teachers, will obtain better jobs, will have better access to quality health care and medical insurance, and will live longer—all of which adds up to a better life. The economic, legal, and political system of America, on every level, will better accommodate their interests and will guarantee that this better treatment will be passed on to their children.

This is outright classism: Education is the great equalizer amongst all classes. I am offended that we would let our college system decay just because "those people", those lower-class people, "the little people", the "drones", want to work for the same opportunities that someone in private school has taken for granted. I'll never forget, nor forgive, the gibe that Marblehead high-school students use on one another to this day: "You could end up at Salem State!"

Consider our governor, Deval Patrick: He got his start at Milton Academy after being fortunate enough, as an inner-city youth, to be accepted into A Better Chance, the program that develops gifted African-American youths. Good for him.

But how much better for us would it have been to have our next governor be a graduate of our state system, of Roxbury Community College or Bunker Hill Community College, for example! Imagine if those institutions were so good that they could feed good, proud, graduates into our 4 year colleges, or even our private schools! Imagine if we had a public law school (Massachusetts doesn't) in a state where a law degree is a de facto prerequisite to higher office. Imagine higher officials who actually love the state and want to live and stay here! (Most of us state college alumni don't go anywhere.)

Our own Mayor Driscoll, of course, is a proud graduate of Salem State, but there is an educational glass ceiling between her and those in state government with real power, most of whom went to private schools, some of them all the way from high school (see "Triple Eagles".)

Those people really do believe the good go to private schools and the drones go to public schools. The state colleges won't get anything as long as this philosophy doesn't change.

I don't expect it to.


Harry said...

I liked your post, but a couple of points:

First, Patrick's request is for $2 BILLION, not $2 Million. There is a huge difference.

Second, US colleges compete vigorously with each other to attract students who are bright, accomplished, or wealthy. As long as they do, it is unrealistic to expect equal outcomes among all colleges.

David Moisan said...

Thanks for the correction. It's interesting that 20 years ago, long before 9/11, Salem State was quite the magnet for foreign students, not all of whom, of course, had wealthy families to send them off to "good" schools.