• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


Hope From an Unlikely Source

Demographics don't have to be destiny.

January 15, 2020

Christina Cauterucci’s piece in Slate this week about the Democratic presidential primaries gave me hope, for reasons unrelated to the candidates or policies.

It draws on survey data, disaggregated by various demographics, to look at which groups of voters support which candidate. The reason it gives me hope is that the usual boxes into which we put voters aren’t working. The stereotypes aren’t holding.

For instance, in a race in which one candidate (Sanders) is literally more than twice the age of another (Buttigieg), young voters are lining up behind the older one. (That’s true in my own home; The Girl, all of 15, is feeling the Bern.) If you had told me a few years ago that the candidate who most whips up the teens would be a 78-year-old from Vermont, I wouldn’t have believed you. Yet, here we are.

According to the data, the reason that Kamala Harris and Cory Booker couldn’t get traction among black voters was the overwhelming black support for … Joe Biden. I’m guessing the Obama connection has a lot to do with that, but still. Julián Castro didn’t ignite Latino support at scale, but Sanders and Andrew Yang drew disproportionate support from Latino voters.


The piece even mentions a statistic in passing that seems worthy of an extended analysis in itself. The poll was large enough to include significant samples of self-identified LGBTQ voters. Apparently, 75 percent of the ones who identified as bisexual were women.

That would not have been my guess.

Meanwhile, Buttigieg -- still in his 30s -- polls most strongly among voters over age 55, and Tulsi Gabbard’s support, such as it is, is very disproportionately male.

I bring this up not to prognosticate or to shill for a candidate or party, but to celebrate the finding that, yet again, people are complicated and resist easy categories. They don’t always behave the way that they’re “supposed” to, according to Very Smart People.

That’s the simple truth underlying open-door admissions policies at community colleges. You can’t tell who’s going to be successful just by looking at them, or by looking at whatever demographic groups they come from. They can surprise you. Yes, there are patterns in the aggregate, but those patterns break down when you go from looking at large numbers to looking at individual people. As well they should.

Community colleges are based on an increasingly rare epistemological humility. We don’t know who will succeed until they show us, so it’s best to give everyone a shot or two. That’s not the direction that the culture as a whole is moving, but it should be. It’s respect, in institutional form. That’s so unusual now as to generate anxiety on the outside. The recent fad of performance-based funding hasn’t worked, but it survives because it plays into the cultural narrative of ubiquitous ranking. It reinscribes hierarchy, blaming those on the bottom for their own fate in a sort of secular Calvinist fantasy. Simply offering everyone a shot comes off as naïve, and sometimes, it feels that way. But it’s the best kind of naïve. It’s openness to positive surprise.

Articles about political polling can be dreary, predictable or surprising. This one was actually inspiring. Voters, and students, and people, are complicated creatures. The only way to find out what they’re really about is to give them a chance.


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