Eiland's Online English Materials

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A Brief History of College and Why You Should Care

The original idea of the higher education model was based on the notion that a few select people, mostly men, mostly white, all upper class, needed a broad education in order to deal with running the world. This included multiple language acquisition, knowledge of world and regional history, knowledge of mathematics and, of course, elements of logic and reasoning and other humanities, such as music and art, in order to make a person well-rounded and able to function in a world also populated by likewise educated upper-class men (Thelin, 2011), with some women of high peerage as well, such as queens and the like. As teenagers (often early teens), these American males would be graduated very quickly from prepratory equivalents of elementary and high school into the college system where they would have an intensive education that spanned several years and covered a great many ranges of subjects. The goal here was not a degree. These men entered and left at will and merely moved into an already established place in society. Women and minorities, in most cases, were expressely forbidden from attending thses institutions with one notable exception: First Peoples, who were being trained to live in what was rapidly becoming a Eurocetric world (Thelin, 2011). The reason why this experience was called UNIVERSITY was because the purpose was to create a well-rounded person who understood the interconnectedness between history and literature, between mathematics and science, between history and science, between philosophy and history. This experience still exists at the top-tier universities of the world. Places like Yale and Harvard and Cambridge all provide this higher-level education at, of course, an exorbitant cost and frankly, with limited accessibility to most people. These institutions are able to pick and choose the brightest...and many times the richest and most well-connected (legacy, anyone?)...men or women of the population to grace their hallowed halls (Karabel, 2005). For the rest of us, we have to rely on grades and natural ability and the fact that there are other options, including public schools, as well as other private institutions that don't quite have the exclusive standards that these top-tier universities can demand.

The rise of the merchant class necessitated another type of education for a group of people, again mostly men, who needed to acquire a wide-ranging knowledge that was not quite as complete as the elite group, but still required knowledge of communication and mathematical skills in order to compete and engage in the world of commerce. This group became essentially the early progenitor what is now known as the upper-midddle and lower upper class, the essence of the American self-made success in business (as opposed to birthright), but certainly the notion of the higher education as an important road to this status was well-established (Thelin, 2011).

By the mid-1800s, there were options for women and minorities to access higher education. The so-called "NORMAL" schools for women were specifically designed to prepare them for careers that were appropriate for women at the time, most notably teaching grade school and nursing (Thelin, 2011; Whiteman, Prichard & Mitchell, 1978). Furthermore, there were finishing schools for upper-class women, which not only got them in contact with upper class men for suitable mates, but also taught them the finer aspects of culture and trained these women suitably for their position as the wives of successful men. Even women who showed a great deal of intellectual ability were often barred from certain subjects and certain levels because of their gender (Thelin, 2011), although there were notable exceptions in science and literature. Finally, technical schools, many of them set up in the South by wealthy Northerners, allowed African-Americans to access higher education in what was known as the "practical" arts, specifically engineering, technology and mechanics (Thelin, 2011). While a few notable minority men and women were able to get educated at some of the more prestigious schools, access to the schools was still mostly limited to the upper class (Karabel, 2005).

Another important milestone was realized in the post-World War II era that encompassed not only the late 40s and early 50s, but also the 60s and 70s. The first step began directly after World War II when veterans were offered the G.I. Bill, which essentially financed the educations of veterans who otherwise would have been unable to afford college (Thelin, 2011). This mass education of a great number of people from the lower and middle classes essentially broadened not only the appeal of the university experience, but also began a change in the population of the college campus and who was expected to attend and, ultimately, what was taught. The next step came with the advent of civil rights for minorities and women and, of course, their inclusion in the university experience as well. Not only did this lead to the change in the face of the average college student, but also an effect on curriculum. By the time the vast majority of you came to the college experience, what was considered important in history, what was considered important in readings and authors, or what was considered important in cultural context had fundamentally changed from that of anything prior to the mid-60s. No longer was the standard dictated by wealthy Anglo-American Protestant males. Racial, cultural and gender diversity that had always existed in society was now reflected on the college campus and in college courses and programs. In fact, today, more women enter college than men (Thelin, 2011).

In the meantime, there was a segment of the population that also required a very specialized education. This specific type of education was usually rooted in a particular skill, and early on, someone who wanted to be a craftsman (essentially what became the middle "working" class), whether as a carpenter or a leathersmith or an ironsmith or cooper or even an artist, needed a very specific education that had to do with an actual skill (Cohen and Brawer, 2003). Mostly this was learned through apprenticeship, where a young child (usually a boy), instead of being sent to college, was sent to work and live with someone who was a master at the trade, and this apprentice would live in this environment with the idea that ultimately they would take this craft over as their own. How this got translated to higher education was something that we now call vocational education, or CTE (Career Tech). Certainly anybody familiar with Citrus College knows that there is a vocational section that includes the nursing, Toyota T-10, music, and cosmetology programs. These are secondary educational goals that are not a broad-ranging degree as much as they are a specialized education designed for a particular goal. Early versions of the junior college... now called community college... focused on these skills and taught vocational courses that involved farming, hands-on crafts and the like (Cohen and Brawer, 2003). Eventually, this curriculum was broadened out to include general courses in mathematics and English and, under a charter in California, the community colleges became accredited to teach particular courses that are university level, commonly known as the Gen. Ed requirements that lead one to either an AA or an AS once the student has completed all the courses.

The reality is today's job market requires different levels of education than in days gone by. It used to be that an individual could even drop out of high school and still make a fairly good living if they had a particular skill or knew the right peopel at a jobsite. However, the need for basic skills in education and technology, as well as mathematical requirements, have necessitated that many jobs do not even consider an applicant unless they have some level of secondary education... college. That means there is an ever-increasing number of people who are trying to get in to an ever decreasing number of spots. At the same time, the increase in the cost of education, as well as the limited number of open spots available at the university level have pushed more and more students with a wide range of abilities and skills into the same place: the community college.

Perhaps the most essential element that separates not only the top-tier universities but also state universities and private universities from the community college is the fact that unlike these private universities and public colleges, community colleges have something called "open enrollment," which means that essentially ANYONE can apply and attend. There is no litmus test to keep anyone out. Now some of you will say to yourself... "but I took an English test and I took a math test," but those were not admissions tests. Those were simply for placement. Those same types of tests would allow university to essentially reject you if you did poorly, as would poor grades, lack of money and poor SAT scores or lack of space. In other words, with few exceptions, students at a 4-year university have essentially proven a certain level of preparedness. That is not the case with community colleges.

Why is this relevant? It certainly is relevant to you. If you're at this school, there may be myriad reasons for being here. You may be taking classes to transfer to a 4-year university because of cost, grade issues or convenience. Maybe you are here trying to find a new skill after your job disappeared. Maybe you are here to get a vocational certificate. Maybe you are here because your parents said it was school or a job. Ultimately, your reasons must drive your work ethic here. You are either in one of the vocational tracks or you are on a track to get transferable courses, and if the latter is the case, you need to understand what's expected of you when you step into a classroom. If you are taking MY classes, or any TRANSFERABLE course, you are essentially taking university level courses. The fact that you're not at UCLA or APU or University of Laverne becomes immaterial. You are taking the same material and are required to know the same information by the time you get out of that class. The class may be smaller; the course may take 16 instead of 10 or 18 weeks, but for all intents and purposes, you're taking the same course. It is not supposed to be easier. It may be less expensive, but ultimately your instructor is required by contract to ensure that people who get a passing grade in that course understand particular information and have the skill to perform particular tasks that will be expected in the university.

That being said, there is going to be a segment of the population that may not be up to task of completing these courses successfully the first time out... or even at all. Since there is no prerequisite for joining the community college (Cohen and Brawer, 2003), some people are unaware as to their acumen for college work. If you're taking transferable courses, however, you are about to find out. College is hard. It is not for everyone. It is not like grade school or high school where everyone has to be accepted and ultimately everyone is expected to pass. This is where people may decide that they want to do something with their lives that does not involve a college education.
This is not a value judgment. It's not being about a good person or a bad person. It is the reality of the way things work.
To expect that everyone should be successful in college is like expecting that everyone should be able to play for collegiate or professional baseball or football teams. Everyone has specific skills and talents, and for many people, it is those years in college that help to identify what they are, and for some people, they realize it is not necessarily through the realm of higher education.

Furthermore, if you were one of the very smart people in high school, you are now surrounded by other smart people from high school, which means that you should expect that you're going to be again somewhere in the middle. You're going to have to step up your game in order to rise above the crowd. Expect to be challenged. Expect to struggle. Also realize that the level of acceptable dialogue and discourse and critical thinking required at the college level is going to be profoundly more complicated than that required in high school. That means your English classes, as well as your history class and other courses, are going to feel different, are going to have different requirements, and therefore are going to be a challenge. In fact, each level that you rise up to in educataion will require more effort and more diligence on your part in order to stay above average. You will not get a C in class for simply showing up. You will get a C in the class if you do AVERAGE COLLEGE work, which for some people takes a great deal of effort. And just as you do not want your doctor to explain that he really TRIED to find your spleen, but since it was really difficult, he decided to take out your kidney instead, you will have to DO the work that is required, whether it takes every bit of effort that you have or if it comes to you naturally and easily. In my classes, you do not get graded on effort. You get graded on results. That's my job.

The good news is that community college is specifically designed to help the greatest number of students achieve the success that they are able to. In fact, independent studies have shown that the community college system is the most successful educational system and gives the best value for the educational dollar across the board. Community colleges help more people get credits they need for transfer and the skills they need for a job, than any other system in the United States (Cohen and Brawer, 2003). Unlike the university system, which will load up a general education class with as many as 200 or more students (taught by a TA who is a grad student), the student-to-teacher ratio at a community college is relatively small and certainly in an English class is going to be 30 to 1, and you are taught by a degreed professor. That means you have a greater chance of getting help from your instructor. There are also other services provided here that help the student. There is the Writing Café. There are tutors. There is the Supplemental Instruction. There are mentoring programs. These supplemental programs, along with others, are designed to help the students who may be struggling with college-level material to bring their game up to par and to be prepared for the university experience once they graduate from the community college. That requires YOUR participation and effort to seek out these programs and make the most of them. If you do not ask for help, it may not be offered to you. Take advantage of what we offer and make the most of your educational experience while you're here.

To see a discussion of my part (and my classes) in all of this, see What I Teach .


Cohen, A.M & Brawer, F.B. (2003). The American community college. John Wiley &

Karabel, J. (2005). The chosen: The hidden history of admission and exclusion at
        Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

Thelin, J. (2011). A history of American higher education. 2nd ed. The John
        Hopkins University Press.

Whiteman Jr, H. B., Pritchard, C. L., & Mitchell, D. R. (1978). The women’s college.
        Change, 10. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40163445 .

© T. T. Eiland, January 1998
Last modified: May 25, 2015