Jim Cullen: Review of Mike Rose's "Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education" (New Press, 2012)





Jim Cullen, who teaches at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York, is a book review editor at HNN. His new book, Sensing the Past: Hollywood Stars and Historical Visions, is slated for publication by Oxford University Press later this year. Cullen blogs at American History Now.

The 2011 Tom Hanks film Larry Crowne isn't a very good movie -- it isn't even really a very good Tom Hanks movie -- but it is salutary in one very important respect. In telling the story of a laid-off retail worker who goes back to community college, the film focuses attention on the reality of higher education in contemporary life: that the typical undergraduate is not the 18-to-22 year old attending a four-year liberal arts institution who tends to get most of the attention in contemporary educational discourse. Instead, the middle-aged title character finds himself immersed in a polyglot community of adults (some young, some less so) striving to pick up lost threads or missed opportunities.

This is a story that Mike Rose knows well. Rose has spent a long and illustrious career chronicling the lives of working-class people striving for dignity in work, in school and in the connection between them. In Back to School, he focuses specifically on returning students, and passionate hopes as well as serious obstacles apparent in settings where the American Dream is won and lost most vividly.

Rose, who teaches at the UCLA School of Education and Information Studies, is a policy wonk -- he navigates debates between those who advocate college for all versus those who emphasize vocational training, among others -- but a strong empirical empathy animates his work. You'll find data-driven metrics here, but the heart of the book rests on close observation of the realities and aspirations of individual lives, which are limned with economy and insight. (In this regard, his work is strongly reminiscent of the work of my late father-in-law, education reformer Ted Sizer.) This sense of intimacy with his subjects makes clear what statistics often show: that resumed educations are often marked by false starts, unrealized remediation, and unachieved benchmarks. It also makes clear what statistics don't: often invisible barriers involving health, employment and childcare; heroic persistence; slow but steady progress. In recent years, elected officials have shown increasing awareness that community and vocational schools have been overlooked as hugely valuable social resources. While the attention is bracing, Rose is concerned that they may end up even more overburdened than they already are, and subject to unrealistic expectations. Impatient officials are anxious to cut remedial programs, for example, unaware that they've always been a staple of such institutions, and require more, not less support.

Which is not to say that Rose is an apologist for them. He's particularly concerned about the way basic courses in a variety of subjects assume a lowest-common denominator pedagogy that's been in place for almost a century. Rather than teach students using materials developed with children in mind, he advocates a more richly contextualized approach attentive the lived experiences, social capital, and intellectual curiosity even the least prepared students bring to the classroom. (Such an approach would require comparable attention paid to the faculty for such courses, who are typically poorly trained and compensated for such work.) He argues for a similarly integrated approach to vocational training, with literacy and numeracy woven into the fabric of instruction. He gives examples where such instruction is taking place.

Above all, Rose is a pragmatist. Certainly, he says community colleges need more money, recognizing the headwinds any such assertions face. But his ideas are also granular and concrete: improving signage in academic buildings; explaining how the index or glossary of a book works; considering the way courses are numbered and combined. He understands that there can be honest disagreements about how much freedom or structure students should be given, and appreciates -- as anyone who listens to such students must -- how important getting a job is as a justification for getting an associate or bachelor's degree. But he finally insists on the civic dimensions of even the most utilitarian of educations, and the dignity of even the most "menial" work. There's simply no such thing as unskilled labor.

In short, Rose's idealism is the best kind: informed, tough-minded, self-aware. Those of us who inhabit lives on the cushier side of the educational boundary should honor, and act upon, his profoundly democratic spirit.



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