Education

Yes, And … | Confessions of a Community College Dean

I’m told that the first rule of improvisatory comedy is that each person in a scene has to respond to what the others did with a version of “yes, and …” If you introduce yourself as a pink hippopotamus, it’s my job to accept that and build on it. The best scenes develop a kind of momentum in which layers of absurdity build on each other.

Without the absurdity, I’ll say “yes, and …” to William Tierney’s piece in Inside Higher Ed about what colleges should do to shore up democracy in the U.S. Tierney sets out a number of practical measures, ranging from voter registration drives to mandatory American government classes. (Admittedly, as a political scientist, I may be a bit biased on that last point.) I’ll add two prerequisite steps, both of which are a bit more abstract, but without which I don’t think the practical steps would have the intended impact.

The first, which I’m shocked even needs to be said anymore, is to establish, explain and embody the principle of the rule of law. In this context, that means explicitly separating processes from results and accepting undesired outcomes when the processes are followed. I learned this as a kid, through games and sports. Seven-year-olds understand this implicitly: it’s behind their shouts of “no fair!” when someone cheats. Sportsmanship consists in part of learning how to accept losses or calls that didn’t go the way you wanted them to.

In academic contexts, that can mean acknowledging valid counterarguments when confronted by them. I don’t always change my mind when presented with a valid counterargument, just because no position is perfect and even otherwise good ideas usually have some sort of cost. But acknowledging the point is both a sign of respect for adult conversation and a signal of openness to the possibility that there might be something else that’s even better.

I used to consider the basic concept of the rule of law a given, at least in the context of U.S. politics. Over the past few years, it has become painfully clear that it’s not given at all. To imagine what that leads to, just imagine baseball without umpires. A pitcher calling his own balls and strikes will have a much larger strike zone than the rule book would suggest. Close calls would be settled by arguments, if you’re lucky, or by violence if you’re not.

The idea that there’s a law independent of the personal preferences of whoever is on top at a given moment, and that it matters, is getting lost. To the extent that colleges can make a point of teaching the rule of law both implicitly and explicitly, they can lay the groundwork for democratic participation.

The second, which is more subtle, is a sense of what lawyers call standing. It’s having the right to bring a case. At elite institutions, I’ve seen no shortage of students who are fully confident—sometimes overconfident—in their entitlement to hold forth on large issues. At nonelite institutions, that’s rare. Much more common is a fearful silence around any public controversy for fear of giving offense to other students.

As long as certain demographics feel like the public sphere is properly theirs and other demographics either shy away or feel pushed away, our politics will continue to distort. Community colleges and other access-based institutions are uniquely situated to help students from that second group develop the sense that the public sphere is theirs, too. Because it is.

Much of what gets painted as political apathy is based either on a sense of futility or a sense of opacity. We can help address both of those. Students with a sense of how democracy works (and/or is supposed to work), who have the communication skills to participate, and who feel like they belong just as much as anybody else are equipped to be democratic citizens. At that point, voter registration drives are much more likely to be effective.

So yes, and. Tierney gives us a useful list, and we’d be better off if we followed it. We’d be even better off than that if we took these other steps, too.

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