When Jonathan Mooney talks about his vision for an inclusive 21st century educational model – one that accounts for neurodiversity and different learning styles and de-normalizes the notion of the “normal” student – he sees something akin to a community
“Community colleges are the future, and they are the North Star for all our educational systems,” he says. “I find it pretty ironic that we celebrate these big schools, these prestigious and elite Ivy League institutions, when the transformation that
happens at them is fairly small because they’ve selected the best and brightest.”
Mooney, a graduate of Brown University, points to the transformation that students experience at community colleges as something truly remarkable.
“At community colleges, you have folks coming in at a ‘1’; they’ve often faced the most extreme socioeconomic challenges, or cultural barriers, or just difficult adversities in life, and they leave completely transformed in their confidence, in their
views on life and opportunity.”
From all accounts, Mooney was one of those students – although his transformation didn’t occur at a community college. Diagnosed as dyslexic in fourth grade, he finally learned to read when he was 12, which was about the same time he planned his suicide.
In sixth grade, he dropped out of school for 18 months, and throughout his secondary education he was told he’d be lucky to work in menial labor his whole life – and that was if he didn’t end up in prison.
Mooney made it to a four-year college on a soccer scholarship, but he “didn’t think of himself as anything more than an athlete” because he struggled with learning, he says. It was when he met a Jesuit priest, Father Young, a Shakespeare scholar from
the English department, that he truly became excited about education. He told the school’s dean of his plans to major in English, and the dean promptly laughed at him and said, “You should not even be in college.” It was Father Young who inspired
him, telling him “you’ve got to prove that bastard wrong,” and a switch flipped in Mooney.
“My inner mantra changed from ‘I’m dumb, I’m broken,’ to ‘I’m pissed now, I’m going to prove these people wrong,” says Mooney. And, after transferring to Brown University, he graduated with a 4.0 GPA and a Bachelor’s degree in English literature.
His first book, Learning Outside the Lines, was published when he was 21, and he began advocating for a changed education system that better supported diverse learners.
“It’s not about fixing the person – and whatever that person’s deficiency might be. It’s about changing the system or context in which that person finds themselves.”
“Human beings are diverse and multifaceted in many ways,” says Mooney. “But we’ve built a set of institutions and a cultural understanding in which we change or marginalize those differences. That’s the myth of normalcy – it treats people with these
differences like they’re broken, but [the differences] are just labels in the truest sense.”
Mooney says that where community colleges excel – and what other educational environments should strive to emulate – is their emphasis on providing chances or opportunities, regardless of whether it’s the second or twelfth time. That and their delivery
of effective applied education, such as in career and technical education programs.
“There are many places in community colleges where students can integrate their interests, passions and purpose with an applied learning environment, and not just an academic environment,” he adds.
Community colleges face some unique challenges though, says Mooney. Like whether they view themselves as triage and transfer centers – to help students earn the necessary grades to enter four-year schools or to start over after failing out of a college
or university – or if they view themselves in their original intent, as places for workforce development and adult and community education.
“They face a real existential crisis,” he says. “Are they the ‘patch them up, fix them up and send them off’ schools...or are they what they were conceived of historically, which was these egalitarian learning centers that served everyone, at any
stage in life?”
It’s the former belief that has led to a “regime of remediation” at community colleges, says Mooney. The remedial class system limits students from taking the higher-level courses they want to take, mandating instead that they first complete elementary-level
reading or writing sessions or score high enough in placement tests. This runs counter to Mooney’s central tenant that education systems should accommodate students, and not the other way around. And he points to successful models, including in
Baltimore, where students with learning disabilities like dyslexia or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) use technology and other support tools, which allow them to remain in general education classes versus attending remedial reading
and writing programs.
One solution, says Mooney: change the remediation course sequencing to allow students to participate in the education they want sooner rather than later.
“It’s not about fixing the person – and whatever that person’s deficiency might be,” he adds. “It’s about changing the system or context in which that person finds themselves.”
Jonathan Mooney will speak at the Visual Arts Theatre on April 21 from 12 to 1:30 p.m. You can find copies of his book, The Short Bus: A Journey Beyond Normal, at the MHCC Library and MHCC Bookstore.