James Fallows had a pair of thoughtful pieces this week in The Atlantic, in praise of community colleges. He rightly compared them to public libraries, but his pieces got me thinking about place.
In both cases, we’ve built institutions with public money for public benefit. Both are premised on the idea of access, but they go beyond that. Both work not only as repositories of resources, but as places in themselves.
Place is a shifting concept for community colleges.
At one level, community colleges are typically defined by place. Most of them have a place name in their own names, often followed by the word “community.” My previous employer, Holyoke Community College, followed that model: it was located in the city of Holyoke, and it was a community college. Brookdale is located on the old Brookdale farm. (Fun fact: the old Brookdale farm foaled the first filly to win the Kentucky Derby. Its name was “Regret.” So Brookdale has a monument to Regret on its campus. That is not a metaphor.) In many states, including my own, local governments provide part of the funding for community colleges. They’re much more defined by location than most four-year colleges.
They also provide places, in the sense of havens. Both public libraries and community colleges provide quiet and safe places for people to read, study, reflect, and focus. For many students, and many people generally, places like that are hard to come by. Wealthy people can sometimes afford places like that at home. With apologies to Virginia Woolf, if you can’t afford a quiet room of your own with a lock on it, the library and the community college can provide places you can go. My one architectural contribution to HCC was the establishment of a dedicated “quiet study room” in the library there. It proved popular, especially among students who were also parents. The librarians reported that the quiet quickly became self-enforcing.
But places aren’t static. Into the ’90s, many colleges grew by adding physical locations. But as online education matured, it started eating into some of the enrollments that once would have shown up at physical campuses. Most of our online students also take onsite classes; they use online classes to compress the week so they can address job and/or family obligations. Online education is a great fit for many students, given their complicated lives. But cyberspace is meaningfully different from physical space. A student in NJ is unlikely to commute to, say, Ohio to take a class. But there’s no reason they couldn’t take an online class from a college in Ohio. (Almost no reason; some state-funded financial aid programs might not allow it. But the larger point stands.) Over time, that can attenuate the connection between a given college and its specific location.
Community colleges in different places take on the flavors of those places, as well they should. It’s not surprising that a college in the Finger Lakes region has a stronger viniculture program than one in, say, Manhattan. Yes, sometimes there’s a tension when a given place is in severe economic doldrums, and the college becomes a launch pad for people to get out. But education was never meant to be a prison. Some states attach post-graduation residency requirements to free college programs, effectively tying the peasants to the land. My sense of place is that if you have to force it, you’ve already lost.
The hot area for enrollment growth at many cc’s now is dual enrollment, usually taught in high schools. That makes the notion of “place” even more complicated. On the one side, high schools are more intensely local than even the community college campus, for most people. On the other, though, it further separates the identity of a college from its physical campus. In some contexts, it may lead to a sort of identity crisis. If a student “goes to college” during third period, with high school bookending it in the same building immediately before and after, the feeling of “going to college” can be somewhat more abstract.
(In American English, students go “to college,” but they go “to the university.” Why the definite article in the second and not the first, I don’t know. In British English, they go “to university.” It’s a mystery.)
I’m a fan of online education and dual enrollment, done well. But at the risk of seeming antiquarian, I’m also a fan of the campus experience. Some of that has to do with the labs and similar facilities that a physical campus can offer that a virtual one can’t, like the room full of transmissions in our Auto Tech program. I don’t want a mechanic who’s never touched a wrench. But there’s also something fundamental about a physical space in which people of different backgrounds come together, especially when it involves a shared goal other than just making money. What sociologists call a “third space” that isn’t either home or work serves a purpose. And when that shared space isn’t about maximizing profit, it opens up possibilities that other spaces don’t.
Some of those possibilities are social. College friendships are a special thing. Others are more personal. I finished my book at some of the big flat tables in the Agawam Public Library, because it was a place I could go to not be distracted by everything going on at home, without being pressured to buy anything. Places like that are rare, and valuable. In a commercial society, they’re under constant pressure. For a while, the only places where people of different classes routinely bumped into each other — at least in the suburbs — were the community college, the library, or the mall. And malls are rapidly dwindling.
The idea of civic spaces is instantiated in civic places. There aren’t many of those left in most of the country, Community colleges and public libraries provide instruction and access to materials, yes, but they also provide the sort of places that aren’t always appreciated until they’re gone. They’re living monuments to the idea of community, earning their keep by meeting real human needs. Convenience is great, and I’m a fan of using technology to streamline all sorts of things. Social media can be wonderful ways to build connections; I’ve met terrific people through Twitter that I otherwise wouldn’t have.
But there’s still a value to real-life places, in which people bump into each other in the course of doing other, positive things. In the rush to privatize both wealth and interaction, I hope we don’t lose sight of that. That would be a real cause for regret.