Open Enrollment: Ticket to Reality
by Charles Calitri - 1970
In this article Professor Calitri suggests that the most successful Educational Opportunity Programs are not those that are remedial in concept but those that concentrate on developing individual self-understanding and self-expression and relate content of subject matter to the realities of life. Professor Calitri of Hofstra University speaks from the vantage point of an educator who has been involved in special programs designed to reach the underachiever.
In the years between 1948 and 1960 the word at Benjamin Franklin High School in East Harlem was, "You've got to put in your time," by which students meant that school was a prison and you got working papers or a diploma as your parole document. Then the word became, "You've got to pay your dues," which meant that there was a certain effort to be expended before one could reap whatever rewards he was after. Now the word is, "You've got to get your ticket."
All three refer to the phenomenon by which large numbers of students have been excluded from success in the American educational experience, and they are reflective of the changing attitudes of minority students toward college opportunity. At first there was no chance except for the exceptional; no hopeful future for anyone but the bright student, and even then the obstacles of society's excluding process made the road almost impassable.
More recently, beginning perhaps at Dillard University in New Orleans, during the summer of 1959, programs have appeared designed for those students who, with poor grades, low class standing, and low College Boards, have demonstrated potential in other ways. There is a brightness to their conversation, revealing a subtle understanding of the world and of human relationships. They are leaders, even if that leadership is directed against society in such activities as hub-cap stealing, teacher-conning, and street survival. They are also young people who from age five have carried heavy responsibilities in the home, edit newspapers, engage in community service and other activities, none of which are reflected in what the school measures. They are rebellious, aware of what the system has been doing to their people. They are, in other words, not a single abstraction, but single individuals in their own right. The very qualities which had made for "the gleam in his eye" and were responsible for the somewhat intuitive judgment of sponsors and admissions officers, proved to be translatable into academic success. Because commitment was there. Because energy was there, and aspiration, and a willingness to develop self-discipline.
There were attritions. Some fell victims to campus distractions and campus pressures. Others were suddenly confronted with the inadequacies of their educational grounding, and the remedial efforts were fruitless. Though little research has been done, there is some consensus among those who have been working with the educationally mismanaged since 1959 that the more successful programs were not remedial in concept. They were designed to help young people become aware of themselves, of their abilities, of their handicaps, and of the delicate balances between what one wants to do and what one can do. At Dillard most of the students emerged as leaders in the years following their pre-college summer. The seminars, the endless dialogues around conference tables and coffee tables, on the wool carpets of instructors' living rooms, on the grass carpets of field trips all led toward the realization that there was a world to read, a thousand skills to acquire, and a universe of doing.
The primary challenge put to those students at Dillard by Dr. Lou La-Brant, Frank Jennings, and others on the staff had to do with the defense of their concepts of truth. They had to find support for their wild generalizations. They had to clarify their ideas, so that what was communicated did indeed represent what it was they wished to communicate. Everything was challenged, everything doubted, everything forced into a logicas long as the assumptions were in the open, the rules understood, the propositions clear, and the conclusions meaningful. The statement that no conclusion was possible based on what they had was a conclusion to be accepted for the time being.
It soon became evident that one had to know how to read and what to read if one was to open his mouth and not be buried by his own confusion. It was not a matter of being taught to read, that is, how to crack the code, but of how to develop an understanding of the relationships between what was in the books, what was in the reading person, and what the combination might result in.
But the desire, the aspirations, the beliefs in the future were already present in most of those students. What was needed was constant reinforcement, proof continuing that the doors were open and that the ability was there. What was needed was a rechallenging, as if one had constantly to cry, "I dare you!" in order to keep the defiance and the successful performance going.
Seven years from Dillard a change had taken place. Upward Bound came into being and aimed at a different population. Now students were being identified in their high schools and in the streets by teachers, guidance personnel, and community workers as having potential which was not being realized in the academic atmosphere of the classroom. The difference between these youngsters and their older brothers was primarily that most of them had not yet developed even a hint that college was a possibility. They were failing not only because the schools could not seem to operate according to their learning styles, but because the schools could not move them to try. And more students were moving on from junior high school, the dropout age changing from fourteen and fifteen to sixteen and seventeen. For many it meant two more years of "not making it" before the patience of both school and student wore out.
Upward Bound, providing a summer experience on a college campus and continued contact during the school year, charged them with the desire for change, aspirations for movement out of poverty and die ghetto, appreciation of their own abilities, understanding of their different learning styles, the will to overcome the obstacles placed before them in a world that had demonstrated no respect for the poor, the different, the under-achiever. More than that, Upward Bound, sponsored by the Office of Economic Opportunity, placed high school students in close contact, daily contact, nightly contact, with college student models. The Who Am I seminars, the rap sessions, the group discussions, whatever they are called, and which are a part of every successful Upward Bound program, forced an assessment of self in the real world. And the real world now opened up with college as a possibility, and hard work as a necessity. But it was not the "hard work" imposed by the school, or the teacher, or the parent, or the administration, or society, or whatever forces pressed down on the individual. It was "hard work" to be pressed out of the individual by his own being.
There are failures in Upward Bound, too. There are students who have come for a summer vacation, students who develop a false sense of what succeeding in college is all about, students who cannot seem to shake off their negative self-concepts, students who refuse to buy what the system seems to be imposing. In the four years of the program, the failures are far fewer than the successes, but they are important to us because the latest movement of public education in the United States is going to place many more of them on college campuses.
Open enrollment and open admissions mean that all young people who wish to attend college, regardless of motive, regardless of preparation, regardless of anything but the expressed desire, will be admitted. No one can forecast what this will mean. The forces which impel students will include a desire, vague as it may be, to escape the real world by entering a fantasized existence called college which will be different from and better than present existence; a desire to serve an emerging ego which is finding itself by identification with the black and brown nationalist movements. Each impelling force and combination of forces will place on the college campus an individual different from every other individual. The first task then will be to discover, not the differences, but the similarities; to discover, not to assume, as we have in the past and out of which assumption most of our curricula have been formed.
What is unfortunate about the concept of open admissions is that it carries with it an implied promise that the invitation to begin College work includes success at the end of the college road. It does not forecast the possibility of failure. It does not say to the entering student, "The door is open now, but there's a hot charge all along the corridor and many of you will not be able to take it. You'll be shocked into turning back because the further you go the greater the charge." The hot charge is an academic requirement for which the student is not prepared and for which he cannot prepare himself. It is the English One course that begins with Chaucer in the original, touches Spencer, mines Milton, Dryden, Pope. Or the course that assumes a competency of writing which in itself is inadequate to the standards or the judgments of the instructor. It is the science requirement that needs hours at the memory bank and more hours at the lab table. It is the math requirement and the language requirement, and history, sociology, philosophy, and psychology. The hot charge is the term paper and the exam; the dull lecturer and the academic purist. It is misprogramming and conflicting value systems. It is seduction by campus politics, social life, young militancy, sports, all of which are capable of diverting energies from study. And it is the appeal which makes dropping out attractive when the brain-hassles threaten defeat, playing as they do against a spirit still uncertain of itself, and still more convinced than not that the whole business is a trap.
All these are part of college existence and one does not have to condemn them in acknowledging their being. The militants carry with them as much truth as the establishmentarians or the academic anarchists. And as much falsehood. One does, however, have to point out that either the curriculum changes or the student changes, or both, if there is to be any confluence between them.
Most remedial and compensatory programs attempt to change the student. They have as their objectives the development of familiarity with and testability of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Unfortunately, these skills have become ends in themselves, tool subjects, it is said, for future success. A look at any of the publications designed to help young people prepare for the General Educational Development Tests (GED) or the Scholastic Achievement Tests (SAT) will show that the emphasis is preparing the student for a prearranged, prescribed, predigested content. There are fact outlines, vocabulary lists, analogue lists, examples, definitions, and models. The change, therefore, implies that the student will become whatever is necessary to pass the exams or succeed in the courses.
No one can argue with the necessity of being able to read, to write, and to figure if the desired end is success in a world of printed pages, themes, and number problems. The key phrase in that statement is, "if the desired end," the preposition carrying the greatest value. The question then is whether or not the open enrollment student really wants what he is attempting. Does he really want to be a doctor, or is that a childhood dream offered to him by a deceiving, frightened society that has decided on a return to mythology rather than face the reality of its own failures? Because the failure is that of the schools and the society which contain him. It may manifest itself in students who are unprepared and find themselves in special programs, but the un-preparedness is a result of what economic, social, and educational institutions have done or have failed to do. These young people have not learned to read; they cannot write; their mathematics is testable only in monetary exchanges or batting averages. That most of them can carry on deep conversations with one another, utilizing vocabularies consisting as much of "body-English" as they do of words; are extremely acute in evaluating the messages which the world broadcasts to them in its dealings with them; have learned to play a hundred systems in order to survive, has not been entered on the record of their achievement. In our schools readers are sitters, not slanders or walkers. Passing students are hand raisers not calling outers. Bright students sit up in class; others slouch as if what is going on carries no interest for them. In former times the distinctions were meaningful, since the passers were sent on to college and the failers went to work, and neither really expected the world to be any different from what it was. The messages had been clearly received from kindergarten on up. "Some of you belong to the scholastic elite and some of you do not."
But our society has changed. The civil rights movement, the public media, the increased number of minority people who have "made it" are all disease carriers, infecting larger and larger numbers of students with disease. Open enrollment signifies the outspoken desire of large numbers of young people to shake off the prescribed futures which they bought in the past in favor of shining futures which have become possible. But we have been caught unready, and the confrontations are with us.
In a few years the schools will have "changed, and all students will be coming through educated differently, more prepared to enter the new gamuts included in the reorganized rites of passage. The experiments are already on the planning boards and in the laboratories. Technologically-oriented firms are offering contracts which say, "We teach your people to read or you do not pay us," and the teams go into the school with all their hardware and software; and they do teach children to read. They do not pretend to do anything else. They teach code-breaking, not thinking. They teach word-picking, not values. They teach question-answering, not feeling. Those elements of being are still left to the teachers. And perhaps that is how it should be, that technology should be asked to do what can be done technologically so that human beings can do what only humans can. All of this is now germinating, sprouting.
But meanwhile there are those students who have not been prepared, and there are those elements of curriculum and method which have not been brought up to date. The opportunity programs provide the opportunity not to students, but to those of us who are the curriculum makers and the teachers. If there were any elements shared among those programs which were successful in the early years, they had to do more with the totality of being in young people than in the specific skills their bodies acquired. More specifically, the concentration of pre-college experiences contained within an organized program included extensive discussions on contemporary themes, usually oriented toward the actual life involvement of the students; frequent writing assignments, almost always directed toward self-expression and creativeness; personal, self-directed and self-oriented seminars dealing with role, status, and commitment as student and person; and individual counseling. Reading experiences were less code-breaking exercises than meaning-developers and data-gatherers, and most often the books read were chosen in conference by individuals and their instructors.
Where the mechanics of language were included successfully they arose out of an attempt to understand the nature of man's languaging experiences. Where the mechanics were taught for their own sake, unrelated to meaning and expression, they had no effect on writing ability, and a negative effect on such personal characteristics as confidence and self-image.
The Successful Programs
Even today, those programs which seem to be most successful in developing young people as controllers of their own existence, whether they go to college or become community leaders without college, are concentrating on self-understanding and self-expression more than on the content areas of subject matters. This is not to say that there is no content, or that subject matter is being eliminated. What it does say is that more effort is being expended on making content meaningful to the individual at the moment it is learned than on guaranteeing mass input.
The term relevant which has become a cliché has suffered from too many meanings, and yet it is one that must continue to be applied, especially to special programs. Relevance, in this context, refers to the phenomenon of perceived relationship by the individual who is the receiver. It is not a relationship perceived by the expresser as being appropriate to the receiver. In other words, it is not the teacher who determines what is relevant out of what he thinks, but the student who must determine what is relevant. What the teacher must do, then, is to attempt to transform what is to be understood and accepted so that it becomes available to the student. To fit into Piaget's schemes, it must be so formulated that it becomes subject to assimilation or accommodation. Or as Herbart might have said, "It has to be pulped into condition for acceptance into the apperceptive mass." What neither of them says, because they were not particularly concerned with it, is that the mind has to want to reach out its tentacles before any of this can happen.
Much of what is being taught in schools and colleges lacks both qualities of relevance which stimulate the intentional chemistries of young people. Having had no experience in their lives which might have developed in them reasons for wanting it, accepting it, remembering it, believing in it, and therefore no reason to subject themselves to its delivery, many of these students have rejected what the schools offer in its present forms. They ask, "Shakespeare, for what? Your racist history of the world, for what? Your College Board exams and intelligence tests, to what end?" They see in traditional curricula the same patterns which have resulted in their continued failure and the poverty of their relatives and friends. They know that unless something changes the classroom of the university will be another atmosphere in which they will be aliens, unable to breathe, unable to survive. And they will be rejected again in a competition they want no part of because they cannot see any significance in it.
One perception of the problems of the world comes from the condition of ghetto people, and there is no relationship between an axiom in geometry and the refusal of a slumlord to repair toilets, no hope in political science courses that do not change the courses of elections themselves. If one is to do social science, instead of take social science, then credit has to be given to those whose discipline is not enclosed in textbooks and performed on term papers, but exposed in welfare agencies and performed in the field, on the job.
The results of such thinking are myriad proposals for changes in the operation, the structure, and the curricula of universities. For example, there are demands for separate programs of studies, schools without walls, with student-selected and student-planned courses of study, without evaluations, without requirements, and with instructors chosen and screened by students themselves. One has to see such demands with two pairs of eyes, one pair turned to the reality of the world as young people perceive it, the other turned to the psychological fears of students who anticipate another failure and are reluctant to try. Those who are seeking for a way to "preserve standards," "save the university," "avoid disaster" have only the second pair of eyes. Those who want to "throw it all over" are equally blind because the reality of the world as young people perceive it is no more real than the reality of those who blindly oppose them.
And it is with reality that we must be concerned, not as it really is, but as it is perceived by individuals, apprehended and organized by them according to whatever cognitive systems their particular organisms use. One hesitates to enter into this area of philosophy, but it is unavoidable. Perhaps it is that very avoidance of the problem of discussing whose reality we are discussing in the first place that gets us into trouble when we try to focus on the questions raised by opportunity programs and open enrollments.
If there are young people who have developed such a deep distrust of what they call "the system" that they are reluctant to entrust themselves to it again, and if they do desire for themselves the benefits which they see derived by those who have been successful in education, and if those who are planning programs do indeed wish to extend those benefits to them, then the desire and the distrust have to be reconciled, or at least dealt with. One hears over and over again the statement of black militants that they prefer to work with identified bigots rather than liberals because at least they know where the bigots stand. What they are saying is, "Level with me, even if it's bad. Don't try to sugar me and then cut my throat."
Leveling means setting the proposition straight. It does not mean "telling the truth," "saying how it is" as if truth were known. Leveling in an educational opportunity program means working with each student to diagnose his case, to prepare, in effect, his particular proposition. It means that each has to confront certain very serious questions:
1. "What do you think it will take to make you happy?" This is perhaps the most important of all questions, especially in a society whose first Declaration says "pursuit of happiness." All those who respond with the idea that "pursuit of happiness" is irrelevant to education had better return to Jefferson and the nation's first words.
2. "Are you ready to investigate what it will take to get you there?" Note that this does not presume to tell the student what is involved. It encourages him to think about himself and to ask questions about his commitment to what he has said "will make him happy."
3. "Suppose you take a good look at what you think the world is all about and how you fit into it. How does that square off with what you think you want?" It is here that reality should begin to show itself, all the realities, and all the myths with which human beings explain away the data they do not want to confront. If this is done in seminar, then students begin to confront each other with "what you are" and "what you want."
4. "Would it be helpful in trying to make decisions for yourself to investigate what other people in your time and in past times have had to say about the
world and the ways in which they see it and live in it?" Study begins here. And for some that study may mean learning to break the reading code; for others it may mean finding meaning in books and articles that begin with their own interests and move them into new interests. And for all it is still a matter of talking about their experiences and trying to relate them to aspirations, and to the vital things they have to do to their own bodies in order to realize those aspirations.
5. "If you think you know where you want to go, and you begin to realize what it is going to take and how much effort you are going to have to put into it, are you ready to say it is really worth it and begin to work on it?"
This commitment is a decision to accept the proposition, the if-then-ness of all decision making. For large segments of the school population, it was made even before birth, by families and social classes for whose children college attendance is an assumption. For other segments, especially those who are to enter opportunity programs, that assumption does not exist, or at least did not until recently. But for both groups, for all young people, the mere assumption is worthless unless the' commitment is constantly being renewed. And this means that the fifth question, "Is it really worth it?" must be confronted almost daily.
What we are saying can be reduced to, "If you think your pursuit of happiness involves the hassle of colleging, do you want it badly enough to do what you have to do?" On the other hand, the program makers also have a commitment, and that is to keep the doors open and the corridors uncharged. Defenders of the College Faith, the Standards Bearers, the Discipline Disciples, the Tradition Flagmen all have to be asked to re-examine their bulwarks (bull works) with such questions as:
The simple answers like "Teach them my subject" are no longer viable; not until that word subject has been exposed to a new scrutiny that includes finding reasons why anyone but the specialist has to learn it. At one university each department was asked to draw up an examination which would include the basic knowledge of that discipline required of any individual in order that he be considered an "educated" man. The examinations were then given to members of the faculty from other departments, math to humanities and social science people, English to math and science people, and so forth. The conclusion had to be: There are no "educated" persons on this faculty. "Wow!" as young people would say.
There is no presumption here that young people know what they really want. There is, however, an assumption that continued investigation and dialogue with young people will not only help us to find out, but will help them too. Unless some matching of curriculum and student occurs, there will be frustrated teachers continuing to fail frustrated young people, each condemning the other until "destruction sickens."
And this does not permit lamentations over what the past has failed to provide. One can no longer say, "Well, I'm sorry, you should have learned that in grade school, or junior high, or high school." Preparation for what has to be done must be seen as an integral part of what has to be done. And to do this we need a much clearer understanding of the relationships between a body living in its environment, the informal educational experiences of a human being, the formal educational experiences provided by the schools and colleges, and the learning continuum of the individual. The term continuum is meant to imply that there are no distinct separations in the development of the human organism, and that the process of learning begins at or before birth and continues as long as the brain is capable of receiving and dealing with messages from the universe inside and outside the skin. We would maintain that there is no magic nor mystery about mathematics. It is a languaging activity developed by men beginning, as all languaging activities do, with the original processes of sensing, perceiving, sorting, re-forming, creating, and communicating. And it must be built in each individual by extensions of his natural language, which began with the first meanings his body put together and the first motorings by which he was able to pass his own meanings on to someone else. The fear-producing exotics of mathematics disappear when an individual comes to understand that subtraction is what happens when five friends are standing on the street corner and one goes home; that subtraction is only a word for a whole series of meanings he already has in him, and that it is a long word which he can replace with a short line; and that subtraction is a word related to the traction of his tires, or the tractor farmers use. One of the ways of helping young people understand new concepts is to encourage them to ruminate among roots, trying to rind out just what such words have in common, and perhaps even why they were the words invented by whatever man first used them to express his idea.
In this context the ability to use formal English develops out of whatever forms of informal English are already the languaging process of the individual; his street words and constructions, his family intercommunications, even the silences with which he has learned to cope with strangers whom he distrusts or the acting-out motions by which he intends to impress. To enter into his languaging world, one has to uncover his meanings and bring them into some kind of confluence with one's own meanings. Thus the word Thing, which is used as the name of so many things, needs its context to establish its meaning. And that context may include a rolling of the eyes, a snapping of the fingers, a shrug of the shoulders and an adjective. It is from that languaging to more verbal forms that the extensions have to proceed. And it is probable that the process Dewey was talking about when he suggested that we proceed from the known to the unknown was just that, the movement from natural languaging to formal languaging, not only in English, but in physics, chemistry, history, and anthropology as well. In this context, then, these disciplines are also seen as nothing more than languaging developed by their professors focusing of thinking and communicating over relatively long periods of time. There is no intent here to demean the disciplines, only to re-mean them.
One of the keys to helping new educational opportunity programs to succeed, therefore, is to begin to recognize that what their planning needs is also the need of all education. It seems almost impossible that one has to go back into the old concepts and structures in order to come up with something new and relevant, but any curriculum specialist knows the factors to be considered. The student, the social scene, the subject, the teacher; the individual learner, the society, the content, the instructor; the needs of the pupil, the aspirations of the society, the structure of the discipline, the abilities of the professor—there are a hundred ways of putting it together. The flaw must be in the application.
Or perhaps the flaw lies in the ability of man to ignore the details of a concept once he has a word for it, so that student loses the characteristic of an individual human being, society becomes an overarching mass, content becomes a thing outside of the human being containing it, and the teacher an assignment to a place, a time, and a subject. Each of these has to be done over, and it is suggested here that each of these has to be done over by each individual, alone and in community with others.
Each student is the single-self to be concerned with in his own life, learning, and pursuit. But each student is also in association with other selves, and each has some things which he shares with others and some things which belong to him alone. The private and the public are both to be dealt with in any educational experience, and this includes:
4. Commitment to the propositions.
There is no single formula for success. There is not even a promise of success. There is only the effort to reconcile and deal with the different realities which human beings live in; different from one person to another and also different in each person from one moment to another.
Educational Opportunity Programs, whether they are on college campuses or in high schools, must investigate these realities, must discover where things are now, where individuals, students and teachers want them to go, and what must be done to serve those ends. Certainly ego-searching is part of this process. Certainly the relationship between what man has come to formulate as his collective knowledge and each new man investigating it is part of this process. And therefore, the disciplines themselves and all that they require in concept, structure, and skills are part of this process. But they are only parts, and they must be seen and acted upon only as they are interrelated, not as things in themselves.