CATALYST V21N4 - The Community Renewal College

Volume XXI, Number 4
Fall 1991

The Community Renewal College

Ervin L. Harlacher
Kansas City Community College District
Originally published 1973, IV(1).

For several years, I have been talking and writing about a concept that--perhaps mistakenly--I have called the "Community Renewal College." I say "perhaps mistakenly" because, to date, there has been a conspicuous paucity of educators save myself (and myself only modestly) rushing to espouse the concept and implement it in their own districts.

Two--possibly three--reasons may account for this. First, the whole concept embodies a vast expansion of the purposes and functions of community services, and a surprising number of educators still fail to understand and appreciate why community services are a necessary part of their college operations. Second, the idea was not advanced by a professional theorist dreaming in his ivory tower, but by a practicing community college president who, ipso facto, is an implementer--not a theorist. The third reason, as I now see, is that the concept as originally propounded focused too much on the community as a whole rather than the individuals who comprise it. Obviously, a community tends to decline, and thus be in need of renewal, only as personal obsolescence grows; and, because of this, focus should have been on human renewal rather than on rejuvenation of a more global entity. Whatever the case, I should like to acquaint you with some of the principles underlying my rethinking of the concept, and to throw out a challenge.

I believe the community college needs to reevaluate itself in terms of its efficacy as a facilitator of the American dream of upward socioeconomic mobility through further education. Perhaps its past error--if indeed it has been an error--lies in the fact that it has overemphasized its role as catalyst in initiating that vague something called community action and social change. Perhaps, now, it should get closer to the grass roots, the individuals who comprise the community, and concentrate more on the "human renewal" aspects of its offerings rather than the processes by which it tries to induce student learning. Perhaps, during the past decade, it has relied so heavily upon technological methodology as an aid to learning that it has lost touch with the individual it is intended to serve.

Whether or not we are willing to admit it, the community college has done nothing--or, at most, very little--to change the credential-oriented attitude of the American public. Though we have talked a great deal about developing the individual to his fullest potential, it has usually been in terms of his ability to achieve the associate degree. We have not seriously considered learning from the point of view that an individual finds joy and satisfaction in knowing today more than he knew yesterday even though what he has learned does not qualify him for a specific degree. The notion that 95% of all students can master learning tasks is probably sound. The question is: can that same percentage master the number of tasks we say must be mastered to receive a degree? For those who cannot (or perhaps don't even want to), how does "the people's college" prepare more enlightened citizens to make better judgments in accordance with that basic American premise, "the people shall judge"?

At Brookdale, the Institute of Community Services has been supplying partial answers. Charged with the responsibility of taking the college to the people, the Institute last year operated through its extension services department 15 formal education extension centers located throughout the county, a Weekend College on the Lincroft campus, and from one to six classes in each area business, industrial, government, and welfare organization. The aim was not necessarily to move attending students toward a degree, though this was an available option. The main purpose was to help students to define their competencies--both those they already had and those they wanted to develop--as effective human beings: personally, communicatively, vocationally, and recreationally. And, the overall goal was to teach them how to learn so that, more than merely fostering the desire for lifelong learning, we might give them the tools by which to translate that desire into lifelong actuality.

In addition, the Institute provided for numerous other community services of an informal nature. Of particular interest, I think, were the activities for developing human resources carried out by the Institute's Community Learning Center.

Located in the heart of one of Monmouth County's largest black and Puerto Rican communities, the Center is probably Brookdale's unique community service program. It concentrates on counseling, college-preparatory studies--and even college courses--for community residents who have economic and educational deficiencies. It provides the nucleus around which we hope to expand the Brookdale version of the "Community Renewal College," though it is only one manifestation of the entire community services concept that actually gave birth to the "Community Renewal College" idea.

At the Center, educational services tailored to the needs of community individuals are provided " a friendly and informal fashion, without thought of credits or degrees or anything more than to assist the burgeoning of understanding in the individual as a member of a personal, physical, political, economic, artistic, and spiritual world," as Samuel Gould says. There, community members gain useful skills that equip them for more than one vocation. There, they receive consumer education, better understanding of their rights in and relationship to law enforcement, training in basic learning and communication skills, and the high school equivalency diploma. There, nearly 500 individuals, many of them high school dropouts of many years' standing, were serviced last year through the General Education Development and English-as-a-Second-Language programs.

It isn't the degree the people who pass through the Community Learning Center are seeking; it's personal upgrading and performance skills. Some do enter degree programs at Brookdale; but more find their niches in the world of work, safe in the knowledge that the doors of the Center will always be open when they are again in need of "human renewal."

I am not denigrating the value of the degree, nor am I suggesting that any less emphasis should be placed upon its achievement. What I am suggesting is that the community college, because of its stated philosophy, is obligated to take the student--any student--to wherever he is able to go, with dispatch or with patience as the individual case may require. I am also suggesting that informal education plays an important role on the stage of many people's lives. Obstacles that prevent an individual's traveling the degree route don't necessarily prevent his learning, and it is in this area that community services make their greatest contribution.

Informal education is--or ought to be--the forte of community services. Unfortunately, though, in too many colleges the office of community services is assigned the responsibility merely for providing cultural and recreational divertissements that can be provided equally well (and frequently are) by other community agencies, together with a few educational experiences encapsulated in pleasant placebos and designed primarily for citizens who already are well educated.

In view of these considerations, I suggest that the community services office reconstitute itself as an institution dedicated to the proposition that human renewal--the individual upgrading of every citizen within its district--is its primary and overriding purpose. I suggest that it divorce itself from the notion that an individual's ability to accumulate credits is the ultimate measure of his worth; that it more fully discharge its obligation to help every member of its community acquire the basic skills and understandings needed for effective functioning in a world at flux; and that it revitalize its efforts to generate a sense of responsibility for the future that, to date, it has done only imperfectly because it has failed largely to reach the noncredentially oriented. I suggest that we, as educators and molders of the citizens of tomorrow, propound the philosophy that society, like democracy (as Dewey told us long ago), is not an heirloom to be handed down intact from generation to generation. Rather, because conditions of its environments are perennially changing, society must be recreated by generation after generation, so that the costly disease of community decay and the wasteful erosion of human resources can be prevented.

Somewhere there has to be a beginning. As I envision it, the Community Renewal College, unlike many four-year colleges and universities, will place higher value upon the individual than upon the institution, believing that the higher the degree of individual self-realization, the greater will be the well-being of society at large. Society is only as great and as good as the individuals who comprise it and the Community Renewal College, therefore, will place highest priority on enriching the lives of all of its constituents. With emphasis upon defined competencies and student-college educational pacts that attempt to ensure student achievement of those competencies, it would be possible to bring further education to more people than ever before and thus to validate the concept of "universal higher education."

Thus it is our goal at Kansas City to develop in due course a community college without walls as a fourth college of the district--a Community Renewal College. A college that would exist without a formal campus; a college that would establish a network of learning sites that offer both formal and informal learning opportunities; a college that would utilize a faculty not solely of academically-credentialled individuals but of community personnel with demonstrated expertise in their several fields of endeavor, thus making the entire community college district a laboratory for learning; a college that would emphasize multimedia, multimodal, self- instructional learning systems, free scheduled courses-- recognizing that what is learned is more important than what is taught.

Copyright 1992 by the National Council on Community Services & Continuing Education. Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for sale