Warning: this post contains curmudgeonly, possibly mean-spirited, grousing about good people with their hearts in the right place not being their best selves. Your mileage may vary.
Tonight was the big Cal teach-in before tomorrow’s day of walkout/protest/demonstration scheduled for all University of California campuses. Again the room, this time our largest lecture hall (seating almost 1000), wasn’t big enough, with hundreds of students refused admission (fire codes). We have a 6000 seat outdoor theater and it was a lovely evening; it’s enough to make one suspect that dark forces in the administration are trying to cut the legs off protest by not allowing it in appropriate venues. I do know that the campus police were reported out and about taking down posters for tomorrow’s walkout.
Back in the day, a teach-in was teaching: faculty who knew something about an issue tried to explain it, sometimes just propagandizing but preferably illuminating complications and subtleties of the state of affairs (Vietnam War, racial injustice, etc.) triggering the state of protest. Tonight, not so much; the six speakers were earnest and lively, but the critical thinking of which we’re supposed to be a veritable factory had mostly left the building. It was a rally (not that there’s anything wrong with that per se): unbalanced, emotional, and selective; exciting and motivating but as teaching, or even pointing to useful actions one could take to be useful, pretty thin gruel.
Privatization, a sort of vaguely defined dark misty presence for the evening, was conjured up again and again to swoop overhead and frighten us. Solidarity was invoked and cheered without much clarity about who is allying with whom on what issue with what concrete goals, long-term or interim. The students were implored usefully by one speaker to talk to those who want to cut funding for California public goods and services and not to shout at them, but got precious little usable advice otherwise, nor even any guidance in how to actually find those people to engage with them. People need leadership that waves the occasional bloody shirt, but they also need to be given tasks they can accomplish, that accumulate visible progress and build capacity for more and more demanding ones. For example, and it’s only that: “Tonight, before you go to bed, make a phone call to your parents and another to an aunt or uncle. They made you crazy asking “what happened in school today?” for years; now is the time to tell them what’s happening here and what you learned tonight. And then ask them to call their state rep or senator, and have those office phone numbers for them, Googled before your call.”
In the way of teaching, what the audience really needed, I know from discussion in my own classroom, was a clear review of the specific forces and bad decisions that has brought California to where it is, coupled with an open-eyed and explicit recognition that almost every policy problem, – like our constitutional initiative mechanism – was the solution to a real problem people really had in the past – like the suffocating embrace of California by the Southern Pacific Railroad a century ago. And recognition that generous funding for universities and schools is a democratic decision, not a God-given right of youth, and that saying “less,” whether or not it’s wise or fair, is a legitimate outcome. One speaker started this review of our Gordian knot of policy dysfunction, but never got (for example) to our term limits law and the legislation one can expect from a permanently novice legislature.
I am a strong supporter of public higher education, and when I look around my classroom at the multicolored cohort of students who compliment me with their presence and attention, compare it to the Harvard and MIT courses I used to teach, and reflect on the number of my students who are the first in their families to attend college, I have no trouble knowing why I get up in the morning and go to work. But standing up privatization as a general-purpose bogeyman is not Berkeley-quality analysis, and most important, it doesn’t hold up with people who have life experiences that don’t match it. Private higher education in the US is not education from McDonalds or Nordstroms, it is nonprofit education, using a uniquely American mechanism to do things other governments do through their civil services. And Milton Friedman was right in crediting the universally recognized across-the-board international superiority of American public higher education to the existence of this wonderful, irrational, 100% American system of ‘private’ schools nipping at our heels and keeping us working hard at what we do. (The same goes for the non-profit schools, vice versa, and I’m really disheartened by the very feeble presence of the presidents of USC, Stanford, and CalTech (a lot of whose faculty we trained, and a lot of whose graduate students are Bears or Bruins or whatever) in the fight to save the University of California and the Cal State schools. Why aren’t they all over the op-ed pages? This isn’t a zero-sum game!)
One speaker, a political scientist who I think should know better, paraded a catalog of ten disasters, from loss of academic freedom to corporate control of research and teaching, that would befall Berkeley if it were “privatized” (meaning, funded a lot more by tax-deductible contributions from individuals and, yes, corporations). It was absolutely terrifying, but about halfway through, I realized that I taught at MIT and Harvard for eight and ten years respectively, and neither one was anything like the nightmare she was evoking – not perfect; occasional falls from the high road to be sure; but just nothing like her prediction. And I also realized that, like many of my colleagues, I have taught and visited at several foreign public universities in different countries, and their pure and unsullied publicness has not kept them even in the same league as American schools, public or private. Faculty faxing their teaching in while they work at second jobs, poisonous internal politics and corruption, pathetic, inadequate physical plant, disaffected students, failure to deliver real socioeconomic mobility, methodologically obsessed irrelevant obscurantist research; they have it all. I’m sure I’m not the only one who was thinking, “…wait a minute! We of all people have to make our case with facts and balance!” during that over-the-topness, nor the only one experiencing a similar disquieting itch repeatedly during a lot of the rest of the program.
Colleagues: please let’s don’t become what we despise! Our absolute and comparative advantages both are unraveling complexity, willingness to examine any proposition, seeing all sides, being aware that further examination and continued learning will demonstrate that we were wrong about something, and the courage to stand against a crowd and make it think before it cheers. If we play instruments of which we know not the stops, wield weapons for which we have no training, and slip our intellectual and moral moorings, we will assuredly lose this fight, and deserve to.