“Some old compass in the blood”: a rationale for Flint Hills Studies

CottonwoodFalls

The Chase County courthouse, Cottonwood Falls, Kansas, the oldest state building in continuous use in Kansas.

This is the version that the curriculum committee and/or the Board of Trustees won’t see, but it will be the truer version:

It has been so long ago now, I no longer remember whether it was my first or second commencement as a member of Butler Community College (then still known as Butler County Community College–something I will return to later).  It was long ago enough, though, that I still felt myself to be a recent arrival here.  Nor was it the moment when I had an epiphany about the value of offering a course or courses on various aspects of this distinct region of the nation; that would come much, much later.  Still, it has stuck with me all this time, and in thinking about it now, it clearly is, indirectly, one of the reasons I think such a program of study would be valuable to offer to our students.

Whoever the commencement speaker was, he began by noting something I’d known since at least junior high school: that we were only a couple of hours to the southwest of the geographic center of the 48 contiguous states.  I instantly began writing the rest of his address in my head–the version I wanted him to give, at least: I’d been at Butler long enough to know that many of my students thought of themselves as living in the middle of nowhere, and so I became hopeful that, by using his geographical nugget as a kind of metaphor, he’d turn their nihilism on its head: “You’re not in the middle of nowhere–you’re at the center of everything!”

Of course, that address, whatever its eventual theme was, wasn’t the one I’d hoped for.  As I think back on that day, however, I am more and more persuaded, for various reasons, that our students need to hear something like the address I had imagined, and for this reason: We equip our students pretty well for the task of making their chosen way in world; however, though it’s true most of our graduates stick around here, I’m not sure that what we do actually gives them a reason (apart from family or work) to stay.  (Much) more existentially, many of my students also lack a sense of place, by which I mean “a sense of at least being from somewhere, if not a sense of connectedness to where they happen to be living now.”  I think that coursework whose subject is the Flint Hills would give them a context and intellectual tools that would help them find what William Least Heat-Moon in PrairyErth describes as “some old compass in the blood”–and if not for the Flint Hills, then for whatever place in which they happen to find themselves.

I think that such courses would also provide my college with a version of that compass.

Butler Community College is intent on making sure that the credits students earn are of “use” to them in the most academically- and/or vocationally-pragmatic sense of that term, whether under the guise of their transferability to the 4-year schools in the state, or of leading toward certification in a given field, or of job preparation.  There’s nothing at all wrong with those intentions, of course; if we weren’t doing those things, we’d be doing our students a disservice. All of that figures into the “community” part of “community college.”

But, especially as we work toward a more scripted version of our respective departments’ majors with the goal of helping students complete their 2-year degrees, we run the risk of becoming too zero-sum-ish in our determining what students “should” study while here, but with outside factors–what other schools will/won’t accept as transfer credit, for example–determining those “should”s rather than what we, as an institution, think is valuable apart from those other factors.  In such a zero-sum reckoning, it appears that our students are “winning,” but at a cost to them, and to us as well.  In this way of thinking, we actually end up serving other “communities,” broadly defined (in our current parlance, other stakeholders), and not so much our own community.  By which I mean: Aside from providing a good education to students at an affordable cost, what makes Butler Butler?  Other colleges can and do make the same claims, so why come here?

I’m not sure we have a good, solid answer to that question–certainly, not an answer that reflects an awareness of place, of this place in particular.  Consider: some years ago the College decided to remove the word “County” from our official name.  This was done in part to reduce confusion with another Butler County Community College, that one in Pennsylvania, but also because, the argument went, “County” signified “rural,” whereas most of our students hail from the bright lights of Wichita in neighboring Sedgwick County.  But even if demographically we are an urban, diverse college, our main campus is still in Butler County’s county seat of El Dorado, on the western edge of the Flint Hills.  The removal of “county” from our name publicly signifies something that causes some Butler County residents to feel resentment toward the college: Their property tax dollars help to finance the college, yet its eyes have turned, over the years, toward Wichita (whose residents’ property tax dollars don’t go toward the college’s budget) and away from the very county it’s located in, whose residents it was originally chartered to serve.  More existentially, though, the “Butler” in our name quite literally becomes just a word–not even someone’s surname, much less the surname of the person for whom the county was named.  It is a signifier detached from its signified, and thus emptied of its meaning, and the College becomes deracinated.

All of this is crucial for my thinking about the appropriateness of offering a course or courses whose subject is this region.  It/they would be a way for the College to re-attach itself to this place and, in its own way, assert to students and to the residents of this place why this place matters–to put things admittedly a bit crassly, it/they would be a way for the College to (affirmatively) reflect the community rather than just take its tax dollars or, even, just affirm the College’s economic return on investment of those tax dollars.  Through a Flint Hills Studies course or courses, the College would say, in its own small way, that it is grateful to be located in this place, and that it hopes it can make some of its students grateful to be here as well.

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One thought on ““Some old compass in the blood”: a rationale for Flint Hills Studies

  1. Pingback: Summer reading and writing | Domestic Issue

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