Should Colleges [and Universities] Put Education, or Facilities [and Services and Recreation] First? is the subject of a post I put up Tuesday at Care2.com. I really wanted to call the post 'Bread and Circuses' from the Latin phrase panem et circenses, which (quoting myself) 'refers to the practice of [Romans running for political office] appeasing people by providing them with creature comforts like food and entertainment with the aim of winning their acclaim and (political) support.' A recent New York Times article notes that, at colleges and universities across, the US, a 'declining share' of the budget is being spent on instruction, and more and more resources devoted to the likes of student services, athletics, career counseling centers, student centers, facilities, and so forth.
Not good was my assessment: Shouldn't educational institutions be all about educating, first and foremost? saith I, from my admittedly very biased um-yes-I-am-a-college-professor stance. If a reader gathered that my thought was 'have good teaching and they will come,' she or he would be quite right.
But wait a moment.
I think about Charlie' school situation at the so-called 'Big Autism Center' and about how strenuously I objected to him going there for some years.
When the Center was being built, all that anyone talked about was the building, the building, the building---the physical plant---the facilities. How there'd be not one but two swimming pools and a fully equipped gym with a basketball court and a track. Yeh yeh, I said when people mentioned these to me. But (I asked, and did not usually get too detailed answers about) what kind of teaching takes place? What's the staff to student ratio? What's the ABA like? Is it intense enough?
Fast forward to the past couple of months. Charlie goes to the BAC, Charlie likes the BAC, the BAC faded off him wearing the helmet. Charlie's teachers and aides have been good. 'Incidents' of a behavioral nature happen and are not treated as crises, and the emphasis is on how Charlie gets over tough moments and moves on.
And it does help to have all of that space for regular walks. Not very surprisingly, Charlie loves going swimming (though they don't use the big, 8-feet-plus pool; Charlie seems to be fine about just using the 4-foot deep one--swimming at school is a treat). His music teacher has a smartboard in his classroom, in addition to a keyboard and other equipment, all in a nice big space. Slowly, slowly---usual for Charlie---he's working on some very basic academic skills that are all meant to help him someday 'on the job' and in taking care of himself, to the extent that he can.
I have to admit, the panem et circenses have not been unhelpful. One (but not the only) reason Charlie struggled at his old school was because he was in one classroom for most of the day, in a large (1600 or more students) middle school. His walks were limited (especially when the weather was cold; he did take some walks in the hallways, but I suspect a 'noise issue' made this not always possible, certainly not always when Charlie needed it). Someone donated an exercise bike to Charlie's class but, after a few times of peddling inside (on a bike that went nowhere), Charlie let us know that that 'bike' was not for him.
Of course, Charlie's educational needs are very different from those of ye average college student in the US. It's not that he had a choice of schools and that the 'amenities' of the Big Autism Center were a 'selling point'---the Center was pretty much Charlie's last option. But someone was thinking about the needs, sensory and physical and otherwise, of kids like Charlie when the Center was designed. And it's not that the school is short of staff; teachers and, in particular, aides (almost all in their 20s---college age-ish, mostly women but some men) seem to be in ready supply.
Charlie certainly seems to be navigating his days, and his moods and this unrelenting hazy hot and humid weather, well. 'Well' as in not always peaceful easy feeling and smiling and cheery, but 'well' as in 'an absence of excessive behavior issues/incidents/'fun.'
We couldn't resist going back to the local carnival yesterday, after our visit on Monday. As it had poured earlier on Tuesday, none of the rides were open when we got to there, except for the spinning circular 'rotor ride' that Temple Grandin talks about liking so much. Jim pointed the ride out to Charlie who said 'yes' and then a definite, quick 'no.' We stood around by the ferris wheel and a man appeared and started it up. Charlie looked very serious as he rode and, once off, called out to do the 'slide' which was right next to the ferris wheel, but the slide was closed. We ventured over to the swings: Closed too, for 15 more minutes.
Charlie put his chin in his hands. Jim walked us over by the food booths and asked Charlie (approaching a booth where a large bottle of ketchup was displayed) if he'd like some fries. Jim got the fries and Charlie stood by another table where there were two huge Heinz bottles, and took sips from a diet Pepsi (guess who was holding it for him). We made our way slowly back over to the swings and could see two men putting lighted panels onto it, and the seats shimmering with shallow puddles. Some other kids joined us in line.
Some more minutes (it was time for a cigarette break for the carnival workers) and the seats were wiped off and the swings were open. Charlie hastened to get on, after the other kids. Jim took a ride too, to enjoy the breeze; Charlie craned his neck back to see Jim settling himself into a seat and then had that same 'Here I am' look on his face as the ride went up and into motion.
Charlie wanted to go and do the slide afterwards. He handed over his three tickets, got his burlap sack, and went up the stairs. There was no one at the top as there sometimes is and Jim and I could see Charlie hesitating. Other kids came up, set down their sacks, slid. Charlie moved over to the slide farthest to the right and put his sack down. The other kids were at the bottom while Charlie was still spreading his sack out nice and flat. Jim and I beckoned and smiled to Charlie who, one eye on us, climbed onto the sack, placed his hands carefully on his sides, and came down.
First time he's ever done the giant slide entirely on his own.
A little education can happen at the circus, maybe even more so when there's fries or rather, fricta potata cum ketsupo.