Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

Talking down to the community college

As someone who came to the college experience later than normal, in my late 20s instead of my late teens, I was always of the view that learning was learning, whether you got it in the Ivy League or at a lesser institution.

Circumstances — such as an insistence that I make my own decisions after graduating from high school — led me to join the Marine Corps at the ripe young age of 17 in 1978, and then my efforts to make my way in the world after my four years of service led me to the Postal Service. It wasn’t until around 1988 and I was beginning to tire of the sameness of life in the Postal Service that I realized that to take my life and career to the next level, I needed to go to college.

And Palm Beach Community College was there. Close to my house, on my way to my job at the post office, and willing to let me drink at their fountain of knowledge. I worked nights at the post office, and was able to take day classes almost like a real and traditional-age college student. Thanks to good pay and benefits at the post office, I was able to pay for the whole thing out of pocket without taking out student loans.

Honestly, I could have gone to Florida Atlantic University first, but I was a little uncertain about whether I could handle college work and wanted to stick a toe in the water, so to speak. I eventually did go to FAU after I graduated from PBCC, but that’s another blog post.

Because I had to attend PBCC part time, it took me three years to finish the two-year course, and in that time I became more than just someone with a bunch of credits, but a more educated and cultured man. I still had a lot to learn, but I was on my way.

So when I read things about community colleges that tend to dismiss them as inferior places of learning, I get kind of defensive. It hurts more when someone acts as if attending a community college is a sign of failure that will have to be explained in a job interview.

When a community college tries to rise above and be a major player, it seems like there is an attitude that the leaders of the place should recognize their inferiority and remember their place in the educational pecking order.

That hurts. I learned so much from the instructors at Palm Beach Community College, and received encouragement to do more than just attend college. At PBCC, I worked on the newspaper, took courses whose lessons remain with me to this day, and have a cup running over of memories. Maybe I never pledged an “Animal House”-like fraternity or engaged in hi-jinks, but that was because I was paying the freight on my education and needed to focus on that. I was active on the newspaper and in the PTK chapter as much as I could.

Indeed the same folks who run down community colleges also tend to run down adult students such as I was, and throw words around like “career student.” I changed in a lot of ways during my time in both community college and at the university, and sometimes that upset people at the post office. Suddenly, I was studying on my breaks or doing homework. After work, I’d go home instead of going to a local bar to whine about management. Often, I had to get up the next morning for class after working late. Believe me, it wasn’t the easiest path, but it was one I willingly took.

Community colleges labor in obscurity and their successes are not immediately apparent, but those who have a negative view of them are wrong. The people attending them are intent on success and determined to get ahead in this world. Sure, that’s a threat to some people, but the students just want a better life, and are willing to invest their time, money and effort into it.

For that reason alone, community colleges should be cheered, not dismissed, and their staffs should be honored, not belittled.

Indeed, one of the greatest teachers of English literature worked his magic for decades at Palm Beach Community College, Watson B. Duncan III. You may have heard of him. Once, he encouraged a smart-ass student in the back of the class to try out for a play. You may have heard of that student: Burt Reynolds. See the Wikipedia entry for the full story: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Watson_B._Duncan.

Duncan could have taught anywhere, but he seemed happy at PBCC, where more than a hundred eager students would crowd into the Duncan Theater at PBCC to hear him explain the wonders of English literature. I still remember the names of those classes: “English Literature to 1660” and “English Literature After 1660.” The textbook you had to buy, “The Literature of England,” sits in a bookcase in my house. I should open it more often.

Back before Web-based signups for class, you had to line up and give your proposed or dreamed-of schedule to a clerk, who would check to see if there was room. Those hoping to attend Duncan’s class would line up early, and I know I punched the air when I got into Duncan’s class. His reputation preceded him, and he taught people, their children and even their grandchildren.

Like everyone, I loved his lectures, and loved to kid him. One time, I was sitting in class and he was declaiming on the wonders of the man he called “The greatest writer in the history of the English language: William Shakespeare!” Well, this time, I decided to have some fun, so when he said “… language,” I burst out, “Stephen King!”

He looked mad. I apologized after class, and he accepted it with good humor, noting that his wife, Honey Duncan, read King’s books, but he couldn’t see why they were so popular.

Duncan was a great man, and his passing in 1991, before I graduated, was mourned at PBCC. This long diversion into Duncan was just to show that there’s quality in community colleges, and it’s the people who make it so.

So next time someone says, “Ah, it’s just community college,” reply this way: “It’s way, way better than you think.”

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September 20, 2008 - Posted by | Education | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

2 Comments »

  1. LOVE your post. As a 30+ year community college instructor (just can’t retire!), I can attest to the truth of everything you’ve said…and then some. I hope someone who’s longing to improve his or her life but is reluctant or a bit anxious about taking that first step will read your blog and apply for spring classes…or perhaps even a “second mini.”

    My students and I have a blog that you might enjoy: http://psychcentral.wordpress.com, and just recently I’ve been posting ideas about choice and change that you could surely address. Perhaps you’d change someone’s life in the process. Isn’t that what it’s all about?

    Comment by marlajayne | September 20, 2008 | Reply

  2. My story is very similar to yours. Once I asked Watson B Duncan, “what is a great man like you doing teaching in this little jr college?” He answered, “fame, Sally Vance, is something I want nothing to do with.” I think of him often.

    Comment by Sally Sims | August 20, 2013 | Reply


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