"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Monday, November 23, 2009

Will Students and Workers Save the Universities? Giving Thanks for the Disobedient

A piece by Marc Bousquet from Brainstorm:

Yesterday [November 18] the University of California Regents walked into a room packed with gasoline and nonchalantly lit their cigars -- handing down tuition increases that will hike 2010 rates 44 percent over 2008, turning higher ed into a gated community for the offspring of California's "Real Housewives" class. Their bet is the usual bet made by the comfortable: Someone else will get scorched.

Why wouldn't they feel safe? We live in an upside-down world where bankers -- not the capitalists, just their paid lackeys -- get bonuses larger than the deficits of entire states, and the money pimps at The Wall Street Journal are saying, yeah, take it, citizens, take it, ha-ha! And say thank you, too!

The misery of tens of millions in every sector of the public -- in education, health, income security, could be swept away if we forced more bankers and executives to live like teachers and nurses for a year or two.

California Is Burning

That pent-up misery is volatile, though, and starting to flow around the feet of the bankers. More and more of us are waking up to one thought: It's the capitalism, stupid!

For over a year now, students, faculty, and parents across the globe have been turning out by the hundreds of thousands to protest American-style "reforms." You know: junk curricula, volunteer teaching, the return of indentured servitude, corporate domination of research, ruthless administrator control. The New York Times serving up Stanley Fish ("Do your job, punk!") as the face of higher ed.

Today, American students, staff, and faculty are protesting American-style education. Led by staff strikes and student occupations, a pillar of fire is racing across the California desert toward the huge air-conditioned mausoleums of the trustee class.

No question, it's not yet an inferno.

But last month's occupations featuring a few dozen are now occupations of a few hundred: 500 students have set up barricades at UC Santa Cruz; hundreds more marched chanting through hallways at San Francisco State, taking over an administrative building.

At least a thousand students and faculty will face off against riot police and join staff picketing the Regents in Los Angeles.

Yesterday 14 students were arrested for chanting and singing "We Shall Overcome" during the regents' theater piece ("we're having a meeting here and trying to pretend that the outcome is in doubt!")

At 6 a.m. this morning, two or three dozen students stormed UCLA's Campbell Hall, chaining the doors.

Give Thanks for the Disobedient

This has actually been a season of swift victories for faculty and students -- wherever we've seen truly organized and militant faculty, as with AAUP-Oakland in Michigan in October, or grad students, as at Illinois this week, the administration has quickly caved.

Of course the administrators caved -- the real power is where it's always been, with the mass of us, if we can just keep ourselves together long enough to say "no" in one breath.

The California situation is bigger and more complex.

And the faculty with the loudest voices, those in the tenure stream at the UC campuses, aren't unionized: Most of them and many of their students have little experience with solidarity with other education groups, much less other labor sectors.

They're doing their best, but they can't help themselves. So far it seems they want to save their idea of Berkeley and other public research universities -- and just don't care all that much about Cal State-Fullerton, third-grade teachers in Modesto, or the nontenurable faculty they work with every day.

Because, honestly, if they did care about other educators and workers, they'd have been out in the streets long ago! And not too many of them are in the streets right now.

The biggest problem with this California movement is that the folks who are actually in the streets -- staff, especially, but grad students, contingent faculty, and undergraduates -- are letting the tenured do the talking for them.

I mean, these are decent folks doing the talking. Don't get me wrong. Still, why not shut up and hand the mike to the militant, articulate, intellectual staff, for a change?

As higher ed becomes a mass experience -- as more and more workers in all sectors become highly educated, whether they learn in schools or on the job -- it is harder and harder to pretend that higher ed is just about the reproduction of the Bush family's privilege. Today, higher ed is a field of working-class struggle, and one of the reasons it's still hard to see that is the hierarchical, undemocratic tendency represented by handing the mike to Judith Butler. Again, no offense to Butler and other mike holders. (After all, I'm holding one right now, aren't I?)

This could be a moment where the tenured might -- just might -- have unexpected humility thrust on them and achieve enough overnight wisdom to subordinate their Stanley-Fish-sized egos and take leadership from pipefitters, nurses, and food-service workers.

We'll see.

In the meanwhile, I'll be giving thanks for the disobedient, those chaining themselves to doors and shutting down the absurdity of business-as-usual while thugs in suits hand over our future to yet another movie actor.

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