It's still graduation season, and I have one to go to next week. I'm actually looking forward to it, which is somewhat unusual. Graduation ceremonies are what we all suffer through to get to the mingling and dinners out that follow, not unlike funerals. Of course graduations are happy occasions, but they nonetheless tend to be dull, over-solemn, and interchangeable.
This one I'm going to next week will hardly be that. The small group of Antioch students who will cross the stage among the hundreds of other Antioch students at UCLA's Royce Hall will not be getting a bachelors or a masters or a doctorate. They will not be getting a degree at all, but a certificate good for twelve units at a community college or some other institution where they will hopefully continue the journey toward a degree or training of some sort. With any luck they'll end up with a good job -- a goal they certainly share with every student in cap and gown -- but that's not fundamentally why they enrolled in the first place.
This group of roughly 25 are graduating from Bridge, Antioch's year-long program for people looking to re-enter higher education after years or even decades away from the classroom. Some have high school diplomas or GED's, some have already attended community college but never finished. There are lots reasons why: lack of resources, lack of time, or -- and this is what I heard from them frankly and most frequently -- a lack of confidence. Many are products of a public school system that mistakenly tracked them as average or below-average, or ignored them altogether; some have been in prison or gotten waylaid by drugs, what they call a "negative lifestyle." I call it living below the radar. The majority of my Bridge students this year were African American, but there were Latinos and white students as well. Everyone was low-income (the program is free to those who qualify).
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Bridge program is that it offers not the basics but a core humanities program -- philosophy, art history, and literature. I taught writing. Students who might look uneducable on paper delved weekly into subjects I was barely exposed to in my own years of college and postgraduate study: Aristotle, Nietsche, Focault, Greek and Roman sculpture. For nine months they argued the finer points of all, wrote papers about them. Some were understandably wary about the whole idea of focusing exclusively on Western civ and the aesthetic "norms" it created, something they deemed inherently oppressive to people of color like them. They're not wrong. But what they came to accept, and I did the same because I watched its growth, is that learning about anything can be its own reward.
Learning about things that seem to have nothing to do with you or that even oppress you (trigonometry, anyone?) is as valuable as learning the things you like. That's really what's meant by a well-rounded education. And there are certain tenets fundamental to the Western way of thinking, such as know thyself, that are useful to everybody, particularly people who have internalized a false belief that they have limited potential and little to offer. They all got that.
I also teach in the M.F.A. creative writing program at Antioch, and those handful of graduates will be at Royce, too. I am just as thrilled about their progress as I am about the Bridge students. What unites all of them is an unshakable belief in the power of education to put us all over the top, to foster self-improvement to the point where success looks not like a crap shoot or a pipe dream, but a likelihood. This is the bridge everybody deserves to cross.