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Putting students over everything else at NVC

Putting students over everything else at NVC

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Not long after I was hired at Napa Valley College to teach political science, I received a friendly invitation to speak at the Napa Rotary Club. After a warm welcome and pleasant lunch, I gave a presentation in which I argued that the way in which the social sciences are taught would change once the baby boom generation began to exit academia. I reasoned that, whereas many of that generation view college as a center for activating students to go out and solve society’s many “problems,” later generations see the college as an institution through which students are given the analytical tools to discover for themselves what society’s “problems” may be. It is the difference between activation and education.

The activation approach uses ideology, disguised as “critical thinking,” to explain to students precisely “how the world is” and how it “ought” to be. The educational approach, which I believe in, teaches students how to use various analytical perspectives and tools so that they can construct their own questions and seek their own answers about “how the world is” and how it ought to be. In practicing with these new tools, students may produce answers to political questions that I do not agree with. But that is irrelevant, because while the activation approach is concerned with what conclusions students arrive at, the education approach is concerned with how students arrive at conclusions. The former imparts a viewpoint; the latter imparts a skill, one that students can carry with them into the future when parents and teachers are no longer available to help solve life’s many puzzles.

I concluded my presentation by predicting that the coming transition from one approach to the other would be conflictual, as those invested in the activation approach would strongly resist the effort to remove the language of activation from the curriculum. I predicted that they would resist this change in two ways: First, they would claim that to make such changes is equivalent to denying that social problems, such as racism and sexism, exist; and second, that such a denial must stem from bigotry and ignorance and therefore must be rejected.

It’s been several years since I gave that presentation but, alas, these predictions have come to pass.

In my recent effort to transition some of the courses in social science to the educational model, I encountered stern resistance from those most invested in the old activation approach. First, as predicted, a small group (interestingly, mostly non-instructional colleagues) attempted to block my proposed changes by claiming that I was denying that social problems exist. Next, they implied that my “denial” of these problems was due to my gender, (apparent) ethnicity or educational background. Some even claimed that I had a “secret agenda.” The inescapable inference was that I must be guilty of sexism, racism, elitism or, perhaps, all three and therefore the changes I proposed could and should be rejected.

But the only thing I’m guilty of is being an educator instead of an activist; of wanting my students to begin their study of society with open-minded questions instead of predetermined answers; of wanting my students to know how to approach inquiry from multiple angles instead of a single viewpoint. Wanting these things does not make me guilty of racism, sexism, elitism or any of the other “isms” that are regularly used to bully people into silence.

But no matter how compelling the argument, some remain unable or unwilling to abandon the activation approach, and so they attack the educational approach and professional and personally target those who advocate it. Sadly, it was a response I had expected.

What impressed me, though, is the degree of support I received from colleagues, many of whom are baby boomers themselves. It moved and encouraged me that so many voted in support of the same principles upon which I justified my changes: professional integrity, academic freedom and, most importantly, the educational best interests of the students. The changes I made were approved last week, which has proven to me, beyond any doubt, that the overwhelming majority of people at Napa Valley College place the interests of the students above all other interests.

And as for the accusation that I have a “secret agenda,” I’d like to confess to the residents of Napa that I do have an agenda, but it’s not so secret: to contribute to the success of all my students at Napa Valley College by providing the best possible education. In fact, the college is undergoing many wonderful and worthwhile changes in the sciences, arts, languages, nursing and athletics, and I’m certain that NVC provides an increasingly exceptional educational value for the dollar. I’m doing my best to do my part to continue that trend. I thought the community ought to know that many, many others are, too.

(Liscano lives in Napa. He is a professor of political science at Napa Valley College.)

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