Updated: Dec 10, 2018
Cabrillo College, on the coast between Santa Cruz and Watsonville was established in Watsonville in 1959 as "an open-door institution that seeks to fill the educational needs of every segment of the community" (Cabrillo College Mission & History). Approximately 9,000 students attend classes at the campus on a hillside overlooking Monterey Bay.
California's commitment to accessible higher education is impressive: 117 community colleges serve over 2 million students each year. The CA community college student body reflects the state's ethnic diversity: 47% Hispanic (39% CA pop.), 26% White (38% CA pop.), 6% African-American (6.5% CA pop.). As they do nationally, the community colleges provide terminal degrees and serve as stepping stones to four-year degrees: 51% of CA State University and 29% of University of CA students began their studies at CA community college (Community College League of California).
I start discussions about capitalism by talking about democracy. Students are often fuzzy about democratic premises and the relationship of democratic power and government. Most of them can talk about taxes as a burden - they see the deductions in their pay checks - but it's challenging for them to list ways spending of tax revenues may benefit them, even when they're sitting in a public school classroom.
In recent years California's public colleges and universities have suffered from the declines in funding and rising costs that have weakened public higher education across the country. In 2017 state appropriations per full-time enrollment (FTE) nationwide were $1,000 below 2008 levels and $2,000 below 2001 levels (SHEEO report). In 2016-17 California spent 12% of the state budget on higher education, down from 18% in 1976-77 (PPIC). Cabrillo College currently has a $12 million deficit it is hoping to address with a new bond issue; a similar bond issue failed in 2016 (SC Sentinel, 9/20/18).
In the midst of budget cuts and other challenges, schools like Cabrillo work hard to promote access and support student success. Dr. Yolanda Diaz-Houston teaches in the Academy for College Excellence program, "a full time, one semester program (that helps) students discover and build upon their strengths in order to become effective students. Through ACE, you can develop the confidence and skills to accelerate your success in college, on the job, and in life" . As she explained, "Students come from diverse backgrounds. They are often first generation college students, re-entering college or school after years or decades, coming out of recovery programs or formerly incarcerated, single parents, recent high school graduates, second language learners; i.e., community college students. They may not have had success in academic settings before or may have felt marginalized in traditional classroom settings. The cohort model of the program, coupled with dedicated ACE faculty, creates a supportive community experience for the students. They also make lasting friendships with their peers and learn about themselves as group members and learners".
Yolanda teaches a wonderful-sounding Social Justice Research Methods course that is part of the ACE curriculum. In it students "explore a social Justice topic of their choosing such as homelessness, food justice, or immigration reform to name a few". I'm very grateful that she was willing to offer extra credit to work with me for an hour at the end of their regular class meeting. Many students had work or school commitments they had to leave for, but seven lively students were able to stay.
As I often do at the beginning of the period, I asked the group if they'd ever discussed capitalism in other classes. And, like almost all students I've worked with, they said they hadn't. When I asked why - since it has such a big effect on our lives - they thought talking about capitalism wasn't part of their education, a hand shot up; woman in her early 30s said "they don't want us talking about it". "Who", I asked, are "they"? "The people with money", she said.
That sense of inequality and struggle was woven throughout the discussion. As one student wrote, before my presentation, capitalism, "means how the world around us is run by the powerful and not by the weak". Another wrote, "my first reaction to the word means the deciding factor between the "haves" and the "have nots". A socially constructed equation to divide society so some can control wealth & well being and markets".
The topic of work and pay resonated particularly, Students spoke of getting low pay for hard work in retail, service and construction work. One young man described himself as "a laborer", describing doing a variety of manual labor jobs, including installing dry wall and landscaping. It was pretty straightforward to talk about how different kinds of work are perceived as more or less important in society (and how that often doesn't seem to make sense), how pay is allocated (ditto), and what the hierarchy at work feels like (usually not good).
As was often the case, the mechanisms of capital-investing-profit were much less familiar to students than the work-pay-bills dimension. As the trip went on, I became more aware of the need to spend more time explaining the mechanics of that "other side" of capitalism: small business vs. capital market investing, how shares of companies are available for sale, etc. I often ended up saying something like, "so, that's what happens on the Wall St. you've probably heard of", or "when you hear people talking about "the market", that's what they mean". Students tend to be interested in learning about this part of the economy that plays a murky, distant but - they have a sense - significant impact on them.
One student, Maia, had lots of interesting comments about how capitalism undervalues important aspects of life, like happiness, and how it doesn't distinguish between productive and unproductive economic activity. I ran into her in the parking lot after class and she let me film some of her reaction to the discussion. Thanks, Maia!
Maia - Cabrillo College, Aptos CA 10/17/18
And thank you, Yolanda, for making it possible for me to talk with the students at Cabrillo!