The first time I walked into my community college, I was an 18-year-old know-it-all, stumbling into college after taking a long semester off. Honestly, I was pretty embarrassed to be there, taking classes with the dumb kids from my high school. (I was clearly very humble at that point in my life too.) My plan was to keep to myself, get good grades, and hop over to the local state school the next semester. The only reason I was there was because of a really nasty case of analysis paralysis my senior year of high school. I was accepted to a few schools in the Chicagoland area but I couldn’t make a decision, so I didn’t go to any of them. Naturally, my first few days were full of shame and haughtiness—all covering my deep insecurity about enrolling at a community college. I was a highbrow schmuck at a lowbrow institution, or so I thought.
Coincidentally, right around the same time NBC’s new comedy Community took over My Name Is Earl’s Thursday night slot. I immediately connected with the show. It had more wit and subtlety than almost any other big network prime-time program that I’d ever watched and it actually helped me feel less ashamed that I was going to a community college. At first I simply felt less dumb for being at community college because the show was so smart; Community’s Greendale Community College helped me embrace the fact that I wasn’t where I wanted to be and that wasn’t the end of the world.
Even stranger was that the show mirrored my own community college experience. No, I didn’t have an awesome study group with Childish Gambino, Clark Griswold, and that guy from The Soup—but I did grow to love my time at community college.
My experience at Heartland Community College (my “Greendale”) turned around within a month or so of my first semester. While I was generally quiet, I made a few friends and enjoyed my social interactions. But it was an elective religion course taught by a man named Ed that changed everything.Ed taught us to wrestle with what we thought we knew, to consider that maybe learning was not just regurgitating information onto a quiz but rather a lifelong process of discovery, challenge, and beauty. Ed was a short, enthusiastic man missing the top half of his right index finger. Ed was also a Christian, but more so, he was a seeker of truth and a lover of learning. What I thought was going to be a blow-off class turned into one of the defining experiences of my life. On the first day of class Ed made us memorize two quotes that I still think about and reference often. First was Sir Francis Bacon in his essay “Of Truth:”
Truth, which only doth judge itself, teacheth that the inquiry of truth, which is the love-making, or wooing of it, the knowledge of truth, which is the presence of it, and the belief of truth, which is the enjoying of it, is the sovereign good of human nature.
And then there was Samuel Johnson from his essay “The Necessity of Literary Courage:”
That wonder if the effect of ignorance has often been observed. The awful stillness of attention with which the mind is overspread at the first view of an unexpected effect ceases when we have leisure to disentangle complications and investigate causes. Wonder is a pause of reason, a sudden cessation of the mental progress, which lasts only while the understanding is fixed upon some single idea, and is at an end when it recovers force enough to divide the object into its parts or make the intermediate gradations from the first agent to the last consequence.
Ed taught us to wrestle with what we thought we knew, to consider that maybe learning was not just regurgitating information onto a quiz but rather a lifelong process of discovery, challenge, and beauty.
More than a few of the students totally missed the point. It was, after all, a community college; most people there flew the “I’m only here because I have to be” flag. But Ed came into that culture and challenged it head on. And in doing so, he taught me more than I learned in all of my other undergraduate classes combined. Ed taught me how to learn, and I will never be the same because of it.
Ed threw something profound over our heads in that religion class that I have spent the last five years reaching for. His challenge to love truth, inquire of truth, and enjoy the process of learning literally changed my life. Ed has since become a dear personal friend. I run most of my ideas about truth, faith, theology, and life past him on a regular basis. All of this is because Ed had a vision to teach students to wrestle with truth, and at Heartland Community College Ed was given a place (albeit not a particularly conducive place) to bring his vision to life.
Community, like Ed, took a lofty vision into an equally uninspired environment, prime-time network television. Creator Dan Harmon lofts brilliant dialogue and Hearts of Darkness, My Dinner with Andre, and The Color of Money references (to name just a few) over our heads. Community challenges you to think, pay attention, and keep your mind on while you’re watching television. Some people get it—and love it. But a lot of people don’t get it and don’t like it. Despite Community’s over-the-top brilliance I’m not at all surprised that it’s faced extinction since the second season.
Community colleges and network television are difficult places to be bold.
Both show creator Dan Harmon and Ed gave themselves the freedom to offend, go over our heads, and to be intellectually honest.I want to see #sixseasonsandamovie for the same reason I kept taking Ed’s community college courses all the way through my undergraduate: because boldness and intelligence are both rare and refreshing, and when I find that combination I want to simmer in it. When this happens a lot of people—shoot, most people—won’t get it. I have a friend who was in that same religion class that changed my life who absolutely hated the entire experience. And maybe that’s okay. But I am grateful that there are folks out there who don’t accept stale pedagogy or Two and a Half Men humor. And I hope, by God’s grace, that I will be able to imitate the visionary boldness of Community and Ed in my own life and ministry.
In my story, Community and community college will always be linked together. I want to see #sixseasonsandamovie for the same reason I kept taking Ed’s community college courses all the way through my undergraduate: because boldness and intelligence are both rare and refreshing, and when I find that combination I want to simmer in it. And maybe the visionary boldness of shows like Community and teachers like Ed are essential to “the sovereign good of human nature” that Bacon speaks of—whether that truth is to be found in pop culture, the Bible, or in a community college classroom.