Florida State College at Jacksonville / Florida Junior College, Cumberland Campus

by Tim Gilmore, 6/24/2012

Down Pinegrove Avenue past the Pinegrove Deli with the best Philly Cheesesteaks in town, in between the Arts and Crafts bungalows, across Park Street and past the big clapboard saltbox house and the bungalows and the two-story foursquares, comes a circle on the edge of Riverside Avondale that’s named after General Douglas MacArthur and whose houses were built as World War II-era military housing. On the edge of Riverside Avondale, wedged up against the community college campus, is this circle of houses once part of a subdivision called Victory Park.

Walking through an early March night that feels like late Spring, the moon very bright and very clear, walking off MacArthur, around Randall Street, over the culvert through which runs Little Fishweir Creek, back road over the culvert leading from the community college campus onto Randall Street, back road now roadblocked for the serenity of the neighborhood, walking over the culvert into the Kent Campus parking lot, then through the middle of campus, between these lovely brick buildings around the quad with rich jasmine covering the ground, and out under the live oaks. Looking up under the Springtime oaks, all the leaves look new, bright green, soft green.

Looking up into new green covering entire trees under a moon abnormally bright. What are the chances of being alive for a moment in deep-time to witness this particular life?

Old concrete posts on either side of the roads in and out from Park Street with old links for disappeared chains. What was a military housing guard shack in the central median between the chain posts is now Kent Campus welcome signage.

Kent Campus began as Cumberland Campus in 1966 and its students met in classes in 100 former World War Two military housing units that were part of Victory Park. Cumberland belonged to Florida Junior College, later Florida Community College of Jacksonville, now Florida State College of Jacksonville.

Forty-five years after Cumberland Campus first held class, under a soon-to-be-expunged corrupt college president named Steven Wallace, the college would decimate its libraries. While the library at the University of North Florida expanded dramatically, the community college gutted its own.

In 1966, however, there was no University of North Florida, and private Jacksonville University was too expensive for most local residents. Cumberland Campus was the first local possibility for many young people here even to think about college, much less to have college opportunities in their own city. And ironically, Cumberland Campus, housed in its 100 military housing units prior to their demolition and the construction of beautiful brick Kent Campus with its quad and its oaks, a place that actually looks like a college campus, was a progressive place.

EXPERIMENTAL COLLEGE [1968-1969 Florida Junior College catalogue] The Florida Junior College at Jacksonville is instituting an Experimental College as part of its educational offerings. The Experimental College represents an exciting departure from highly formalized educational programs usually found in colleges and universities and thus represents an innovation in higher education.

Philosophy of the Experimental College

Creative young people are likely to turn from convergent thinking, resulting in a single answer, to divergent thoughts. That is, they may reject the single answer and seek others that may be superior. No single answer has been provided for the problem of enhancing the hidden and high hopes of creative people, but the Experimental College is designed to provide the germinal sources for:

  1. The student – to develop his abilities by challenging his interest, maturity, originality, and resourcefulness.
  2. The college – to provide an educational environment for more intensive and extensive study of regularly presented material which will enrich the student’s background and stimulate enthusiasm for learning those facets of knowledge normally beyond the reach of the average student.
  3. The community – to enliven intellectual curiosity which will lead to a deeper understanding of fundamental human problems.

Arnold Wood grows up on the Westside in the 1950s and 60s and hurts his knee playing football at Nathan Bedford Forrest High School and gets in some trouble here and some trouble there and says if it weren’t for the Experimental College, he doesn’t know what would have happened to him. The only full-time job he’s had his whole adult life is teaching Speech and Writing and Literature and Film at the community college’s South Campus. Wood was a student in the Experimental College for the couple of years it lasted before the junior college killed it and says nothing like it could happen today. It was a beautiful opportunity that those times, the late 1960s, made happen. They read poetry and watched Fellini movies in the little wooden houses that comprised Cumberland Campus. Cars were parked and got stuck in the mud beneath the pines. Students like Wood screwed up and got another chance and learned things in ways few college students before their time ever did. Wood says, “I’ve never gotten over divergent thinking from my two years in the EXP, as we called it. I started to take writing seriously in that program. There were about 60 of us that first year, about 100 the second year. Ah, me!”

Before having known of the Experimental College at Cumberland Campus, neither of which has existed for decades now, the young professor in T-121 at South Campus began literature classes by asking students to take three minutes to list each possible use for a brick they could think of and three minutes to list each possible use of a blanket.

Some students said bricks could be used for building houses, paving courtyards, smashing large Florida bugs, threatening home intruders, philosophizing about history to think of where an old stray brick has been, and inventing new measurement systems (Sally is 11 bricks tall). Other students said bricks were used for building. Period. Maybe bordering a flowerbed.

Some students said blankets could be used for smothering fires, keeping warm on cold nights, stitching together into bedcoverings for giants, compost, flags for newly imagined countries, places to hide, tents under which to read books by flashlight when you’re a small child, etc. Other students said blankets were for keeping warm, maybe for bunching up and using as pet beds.

This professor then explained that convergent thinking asked for the one possible answer to a problem, but that divergent thinking asked for imaginative interpretation. He said his brick-and-blanket questions had aimed for divergent thinking, and that divergent thinking would be necessary to succeed in a literature class.

Looking up into the new green leaves of a live oak in the quad in the center of the erstwhile Cumberland Campus, she imagined the leaves were soft new life on old, established branches, like free and joyous young people in a mature and deeply rooted culture. She imagined the older tree with all these new leaves was some poor bastard given a second chance. She imagined it as a wise elder overburdened by the overpopulated young. She imagined it was a tree branched into uncountable newborn babies. She imagined the tree was a family tree, long enough extended that its newest lives were too many to keep track of. She imagined the tree fed the dead in the soil into the newest lives of leaves. She imagined the tree was divergent thinking. She imagined the tree saved all of us and everything.

She ran her fingers through the leaves and thought about how much more trees know than we know, and how much more a system of trees, not even a forest, just a system of trees on a small college campus, knows than one tree does. She thought of what Robert Duvall’s character said in the movie Get Low, that if you leave things alone, they know what to do, about Alice Walker’s poem, “Absolute Trust in the Goodness of the Earth.” Not the “world,” which was made by people, but the “earth,” which was here before us and which contains the world.

She thought that beneath places were the ghosts of places and beneath them the ghosts of other places. She thought that all those layers of haunting grew up strong in the trees. She thought the trees thought divergently.

And then poetry made sense. Possibilities happened. Things opened up wide, wide open, everything.

When you walk through a place at night, when you walk through a place when no one else is there, when you see what that place is when no one’s around, you know who the place really is.