The Boy is twelve, and growing at what seems like a rate of about an inch a week. He’s growing fast enough that despite what seems like a superhuman appetite, he’s nearly invisible from the side. He doesn’t know it yet, but I can attest from experience that you don’t get an email when your metabolism decides to change. It just happens, and you don’t realize it until some damage has been done.
That’s how it works when unwritten rules change. You don’t get a text message or a memo. Most people don’t know until the change has happened. And even then, some figure it out much faster than others. As the saying goes, the future is here; it’s just unevenly distributed.
Unwritten rules, by definition, are hard to control. They change, but the process by which they change is much murkier than the process for, say, amending a regulation. Figuring out when they’ve changed is a form of literacy in itself, and a subtle one. It combines a certain kind of social capital with a certain kind of perceptiveness.
As the distribution of social capital becomes more polarized in America, following the distribution of economic capital, it becomes much more important for community colleges in particular — and public education in general — to help students learn some existing unwritten rules, learn how to discern unwritten rules for themselves in unfamiliar settings, and eventually learn how to shape unwritten rules. We can’t rely on them “just knowing.”
That’s a big job. And it requires rethinking some of our own unwritten rules.
Most basically, it requires acknowledging the reality of social class in American life. That’s a tall order in itself. Americans have trouble saying the word “class” without first saying the word “middle.” We have to choose, consciously, to violate — and then change — the unwritten rule that we pretend that class doesn’t exist.
That’s a pretty drastic cultural change to ask, but it matters. The single most common complaint we hear from employers about new graduates — and this has been true everywhere I have worked — has been about “soft skills.” That’s a broad category that includes everything from communication skills to dress to punctuality. It’s the stuff that we, as academics, tend to assume that students already have.
There’s good historical reason for that. For most of its existence, higher education was the privilege of the wealthy. They knew the folkways of the elite, because they grew up among the elite. In the lower echelons of higher education — the teachers’ colleges, say — the students knew the folkways of the middle class, because they grew up in it.
The great expansion of American public higher education happened during the heyday of the Great Compression of income inequality. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, income inequality dropped, and it was possible for intelligent people to assume that the greatest social problem of the time was either bringing “minorities” into the expanding middle, or fighting the epidemic of “conformism” in the middle class. (It’s hard to imagine now, but critiques of “massification” and “midcult” were endemic in the social thought of the time.) Community colleges were part of a larger picture in which an ever-expanding middle class was assumed to be the wave of the future.
It wasn’t, but we’re still here. And now we’re producing graduates into a market that rewards some winners extraordinarily well, but that punishes the rest with increasing vigor. Institutions that were built to mass produce the middle co-exist uneasily with an economy and culture that tend, increasingly, towards extremes.
Which suggests that the unwritten rules have changed. We can’t assume anymore that students always arrive knowing what to wear to job interviews, or how to comport themselves when taking criticism from the boss. They may violate unwritten rules without knowing that they’re doing it.
With higher education no longer the exclusive province of the elite, and with “masscult” very much a thing of the past, we have a new task. We can’t rely on wealthy backgrounds to do the extracurricular work, and we can’t rely on a rising tide lifting all boats. We have to rethink the boundaries of “extracurricular,” and to confront the great unspoken taboo of American life.