Andrew Sullivan’s site, The Daily Dish, has been running an ongoing series from readers describing their jobs. One of them today is a community college professor. What he has to say is very moving and is certainly consistent with my experience. He just puts it better than I ever have.
I believe the assumption is that instructors are the product of a liberal-biased education and then we decide to join that liberal bastion and are just going with the established flow. For those of us in the junior college ranks, however, I think there is a more concrete reason for the lean left, rather than the abstract leftism offered in certain courses we took as students.
When I hear friends and family offer specific illustrations of why they list in a more conservative direction, it often has to do with anecdotes revolving around the person they check out at the grocery store using food stamps to buy a jug of Carlo Rossi zinfandel or spending their welfare check on some other decidedly non-essential item. Or the stories they hear from mutual friends in law enforcement or social services who deal with the dregs of society on a daily basis. Who could possibly support any form of social safety net when a portion of that net will be devoted to such vermin?
Well, on an equally anecdotal and emotional level (not pillars of rational thought, granted, but clearly major inspirations for why and how most people choose a side) we here at a community college tend to see the better side of our fellow humans who are struggling on the low end of the economic ladder. We see them trying to better themselves, working hard in spite of their conditions to try and take a step up said ladder. Hell, some of them may even be spending public money on a pack of Winstons, but we don’t see that. We see them in their best light, for the most part.
And that’s what I want people to know about my job: I don’t have empathy for poor people because I read Sinclair Lewis or Karl Marx; I have it because I work in an environment in which I see them at their best. Some of them are clearly not cut out for college, some of them are unpleasant to deal with, some of them probably do spend their meager checks on stupid things. But they are also trying to change their lot. And they have much less margin for error in doing so. If I taught at an elementary school or high school, I may assume that the kids in my classes were on their way to the destinies that social research and my own perceptions had fated for them. If I taught at a university, I would never meet people who take an English class so they can legitimately compete for a promotion at the hotel chain in which they work, or pass the nursing program to get their AA degree. The world would be easier to categorize. But since I work in the gray area between, I know that it’s not that easy, and that people defy your definitions for them all the time.