As a new academic year begins, one hero’s journey has ended. Recently as I checked my email, I was stunned and saddened to see that one of my longtime work colleagues had died in a tragic auto accident. I had worked with this person for the past twenty-three years, and while other colleagues and friends have passed over the years, it was usually the result of a prolonged illness or disease. This was the first time in many years that an accident had so suddenly and unexpectedly taken the life of someone I had known. In trying to process what happened, I began to look back at the more than two decades we had worked together and the incredible journey we shared.
When we first met, I was a second-year fulltime hire at a small community college campus in the middle of nowhere. He was a student and had just been hired to help get our science labs up and running for the lab components of the biology, chemistry, and other hard science classes that we offered. We worked on a satellite campus of a larger community college to the south, and our entire operation in those days consisted of a handful of temporary buildings (they have been there almost a quarter of a century now) and one semi-permanent building that served as cafeteria, classroom space, and offices. We didn’t have a lot of contact in those early days. Everyone was very much in their own little worlds trying to get the campus up to speed in the hopes that someday, we could become a fully accredited independent college of our own.
That dream became a reality last year, when we became the 116th community college in the state of California. Since I was a historian and he was a scientist, there didn’t seem to be much that might naturally bring us together, but as I said, it was a small campus, and whether we liked it or not, everyone would get to know everyone over time. We were a modest group of individuals, pioneers you might say, that were working together toward a common goal. We were building a college, an institution of higher learning where students who might not have many other options, given the rural nature of the campus, could come together and receive as good an education as any other community college in the state could provide. And even though our ranks swelled over the years, there has always been a special camaraderie between those of us who had been there at the beginning.
Despite the fact that we didn’t appear to have much in common on the surface, over time, we began to discover that we had more connections than we initially knew. It turns out that we had attended the same church and parochial school as children. Even though I was several years older and was basically leaving the school as he came in, we shared many similar memories and reminiscences about teachers, classes, and fellow students that we had known. But more than that, we shared a similar philosophy about education and, indeed, the world at large.
The real breakthrough came a few years back, when I was heading to a Constitution Day presentation that I give for my students every year. I happened to be wearing a t-shirt that said, “Free speech doesn’t care about your feelings.” At the time, higher education was only beginning to talk about issues like cancel culture, safe spaces, and “hate” speech. The first ugly rumblings of intersectional division which dominate so many colleges today had only just started. My colleague stopped me in the courtyard between buildings, gave me a thumbs up, and let me know that he liked both the shirt and the sentiment. After that, we had multiple conversations focusing on the decline of critical thinking and open inquiry in academia, as well as on the general state of American education.
In the last couple of years, those negative trends have accelerated as critical race theory (racial marxism), antiracism (systemic racism dominates all American institutions past and present and must be actively dismantled), and a focus on equal outcomes as opposed to equal opportunity has overwhelmed educational pedagogy and curriculum, particularly here in California. Despite the fact that those of us who even question these recent trends generally feel like we are trying to surf in a tsunami, my colleague showed the true courage of his convictions.
In the multitude of meetings about diversity, inclusion, and equity (DIE) that have dominated our campus in recent years, he never failed to speak up, ask questions, or point out inconsistencies that he believed were leading us in the direction of lowering our academic standards. He believed we were not providing our students with every opportunity to learn different points of view, express “unpopular” opinions, and still be treated with dignity and respect. And the way in which he was able to do it without becoming confrontational or aggressive seemed nothing short of miraculous to me. In a world where civil discourse has become the exception and not the rule, his ability to state his point articulately, and yet without any malice, was truly something to behold.
I wish I could say the same about myself, but I have always been more of a devil’s advocate type, and, generally speaking, I’ve been more than a little provocative when given the chance. He was always willing to concede points of general agreement without sacrificing what he believed to be true and right about traditional liberal education. At the end of the day, while one might not find himself in agreement, there were no hard feelings or leftover animosity. He was a true gentlemen in the best sense of the word.
As the new school year begins, now more than ever there is a contest for the heart and soul of American education. What was once whispered in the offices of a small group of radical activists in the ivory tower is now being incorporated into every aspect of teaching and learning in the United States. Randi Weingarten, president of the largest educational union in the country, is advocating for critical race theory and all that it entails for our students young and old. The consequences of this radical shift are bleak, to say the least.
The battle rages on, but one hero’s journey is over. He is at rest now, but I can’t help wonder what his legacy will be. Will there be enough of us who are willing to take up his mantle and continue on? Will we be able to preserve principles like academic freedom, freedom of expression, and equality of opportunity? Or will we all be forgotten as relics of an earlier age who simply stood in the way of “progress”? I know that when I feel like giving up the fight, I will simply look skyward and believe that, somewhere, he is out there giving me a thumbs up.
In Memory of Matthew Hurst
Science Lab Coordinator- Madera Community College, Madera CA
Image: Ousa Chea, Public Domain