Sad times

The faculty at my school went on strike yesterday. It’s been a long time coming, and not just in the months of contract negotiations. It’s been years in the making. The very nature of education has changed over the years; it certainly has at my school, thanks in part to consumer mentality. Those of us who have been here a while can say with a good level of certainty that the era of a particular college president forever damaged our culture. He was a man who believed students were customers and education was something that could be purchased, not attained. I can still picture him riding around the campus like a used car salesman in a golf cart going from lot to lot with his forced fake laugh and trying to shake everyone’s hand like a desperate politician. He put everyone on edge. It took too long for the Board of Trustees to acknowledge the damage his tenure was causing, but eventually there was a vote of no confidence and he went on to another unsuspecting college. But what he left behind was a fractured internal community and a Board that felt compelled to step further into the daily operations of the school. It was during this time that the faculty unionized in an effort to protect the distinct working conditions and integrity of teaching.

Of course times change. I know that. People like to say that things evolve, but in my opinion, what has happened to the culture at my school is more akin to disintegration. Our once inclusive, uplifting and nurturing environment has turned into everyday business. The argument, of course, is that our community is no longer the same. High unemployment, the recession, the challenges of our country as a whole means our focus needs to be different. People need jobs, quickly. A college degree is a luxury most people can no longer afford. And our state is broke, funding is gone, so we need to do more with less. Maybe there’s some truth in all that, but why is learning excluded? How did we get to a point where competence is a by-product? Where the art of teaching is no longer valued because it gets in the way—or takes too long?

Just the other day I had a student complain to me that he didn’t see the value in learning algebra. I patiently explained to him that it wasn’t whether or not he’d use algebra at his job that was important; it was the difference in thinking that math was teaching him that would be valuable. The way of looking at problems from different angles and solving them. The way math insists that you stick with it and figure stuff out. Those are the lessons that he could take to his job, even if he forgot every formula. And that’s the secret all good instructors know. Learning content is fine, but the ACT of learning is the key. It’s the act that broadens the mind.

I was lucky enough to go to a liberal arts college where every student, regardless of major, had to attend cultural activities in order to graduate. The message was that a worthwhile education was wholistic. It was inclusive of not just coursework, but the people and community around us. It didn’t focus on one topic, but showed how ideas and disciplines connected and how those connections broadened us and made us better people. I think the faculty at my school get that. In fact, I think most of the employees at my school still believe in education as an ideal.

The Board thinks the strike is over wages and health care and money because that’s their fight. Their focus in recent years has been on the budget. And it’s hard to see faces in numbers. It’s easy to vilify people when you don’t see them. The Board says it’s not personal, but it is. For all of us. Even those of us who aren’t on the picket lines because it directly affects what we do at this school. And it affects our culture. And for a lot of us, it’s emotional. Many of those professors outside today taught me when I was a student here. Several were instrumental in guiding not just my career path, but also my personal growth. The English teacher who used my journal writing as examples of good writing gave me the confidence to major in English. The speech teacher who encouraged me to join forensics instilled in me a love of public speaking. And many more, even now as colleagues, have helped me continue to learn and grow as a working professional. The one who guided me while working together on a community Board, the one who helped me find a graduate program and encouraged me to go back to school. Their fight is my fight, like it is for so many, many people who were privileged enough to take classes here over the years. It’s a fight for learning. And the respect that goes with dedicating your life to the belief that learning, as an act, matters. I’m glad they have the courage to stand up for it. I’m thankful to call so many of them my friends. Our school and our culture here may never return to the times of unity we had years ago, but it doesn’t mean we should give up. I hope, regardless of the outcome, that they always continue to fight for what matters. #solidarity #wearervc

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