I have always thought that anyone who wants a higher education should be able to access it. I have always thought that admissions criteria for public universities should be eliminated and everyone should have an opportunity to try. With these kinds of thoughts held so long, I wondered why I felt so uneasy when reading two articles in particular in the April 12, 2013, issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education.
One article titled “University of Akron to Help Students Test Out of Courses” should have been a solution to my desire to have everyone have access to higher education. The other article that left me ill at ease was titled “Under California Bill, Faculty-Free Colleges Would Award Exam-Based Degrees.” Both of these articles reminded me of what I would have opted for when I finished high school if I had not been able to attend Eastern Illinois University by some miracle on a teaching scholarship supplemented by loans and campus work.
With my desire to continue learning and no obvious means to go to college at the time, I was looking at ads in magazines about how to take what were called “correspondence courses.” These were courses where, for a fee, I would receive lessons to complete, mail them back for corrections or feedback and, when competency was shown, I would receive the next lesson. If I had gotten a college degree in this manner, there are many critical learning outcomes that I would not have achieved, and one of them is my desire to fulfill a civic duty.
Being a black college student in the 60s, I was obligated to be civically engaged. Civil rights decisions and laws had a personal impact on my peers and me. In addition to taking our courses, we met to talk about what we needed to do in our current situation as students to reinforce and be participants in what was going on in the country. We had discussions with out professors about the laws, previous movements, and what was within our power to do if we wanted to protest what we saw as unjust in our community of African American students. We opted to become involved, to have our voices heard. If I had taken correspondence courses, I do not believe that I would have felt a duty to become involved.
After I left college, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated. Because my consciousness had been raised in college about being an activist, I felt a duty to do something with what I had gained as a college graduate. I connected with civil rights workers and the NAACP to do what I could to honor the legacy of Dr. King. I recall writing letters until my hand cramped; I recall marching through the streets of St. Louis every January 15, Dr. King’s birthday, freezing and singing in an effort to bring attention to the need to celebrate Dr. King’s legacy with a holiday. I do not believe that a correspondence school education would have given me the tools and the desire and sense of duty to become civically engaged. I needed the camaraderie and perspective of others to help me develop the passion and courage to speak up and to put myself in what was harm’s way on some occasions of protesting, however peacefully.
So while I applaud efforts to ease the way for access to higher education by alternate means, I am skeptical about what kind of nation we’re creating if students do not also learn that there is an obligation to be civically responsible and engaged. Students need an opportunity to discuss and interact with others who have different opinions in order to better refine their own.