It wasnít until point 169 of the PSCís
contract proposals that I found one into which I could dig my
teeth. The bland "Health and safety protections shall be
substantially strengthened" got me energized. Itís not that
I would mind improving the conditions of "professional
life." But having waged a campaign at my campus for many
years over deteriorating conditions of everyday life, I donít
apologize for my priorities.
How many more students must faint because
the heat, particularly in overcrowded rooms, has become
unbearable? How many more pedestrians must be knocked over on the
major thoroughfare between our "campusís" main
buildings because the traffic light is forever stuck? How many
more faculty have to be mugged because gates are kept locked on
one side of the back entrance, forcing us to detour through
pitch-black streets at night? What does it take to convince
administrators that we donít need to be reminded of our holy
"mission" to "deliver services" so much as we
need the delivery of typing and toilet paper? Conditions of
faculty life? Iím talking a little more basic than that. Iím
talking space, air and light.
But what do we hear from the missionaries
in administration? That weíre about to achieve an empowering
content-area orientation, which, in a post-industrial employment
setting, can utilize pieces in specific disciplines as well as
innovations in fundamental foundations so that an overview of the
information-based, critical-competency and problem-solving skills
of the program can impact a dialogue, in terms of the curriculum.
I guess the toilet paper will have to wait.
So I didnít mind finding myself the
only representative of my college, potentially a contract liaison,
at a meeting at the PSC central office. And not just perhaps to
find the negotiators expert at squeezing out more space or air or
light. Because I donít know how much longer I can commit myself
to a classroom apparently so inconsequential that I need a
bullhorn to counter the corridor noise by which no oneóstudents,
security officials, teachersóseems remotely bothered. This is a
classroom into which stroll-by students routinely toss their soda
cans. This is the classroom as garbage dump.
So I went to Union Central in part to see
if I might find the seriousness of purpose that we need, a
seriousness that characterized my first teaching experience in the
Peace Corps in Somalia in the early 60ís. I can think of many
tales, but the most memorable concerned not a fellow volunteer but
Carnegie, a UNESCO teacher from England whose commitment was
everywhere evident. If the school roof caved in or a goat wandered
into his class, he would continue parsing sentences on the board,
undaunted. On many a morning he could be found leading students
into the surrounding woods, as he somehow managed to use the local
flora to teach grammar. Although he had earlier in his life
traveled the world many times over, and in fact had left an
executive position with Rolls Royce to join UNESCO, he never
seduced studentsí interest with tales of his own adventures. Nor
wore his impeccable liberal credentials on his academic sleeve.
Midway through our first semester, a
political crisis arose, students boycotting classes and taking to
the streets, shouting "Down with imperialism!" When
Carnegie refused to let them back, at least not until they had
apologized for slashing the tires on his jeep, an emergency
faculty meeting was called during which the headmaster,
well-versed in mediation, pleaded with him to be more forgiving.
He painstakingly explained that students often behave
irrationally, that we must encourage free expression and that in
the last analysis maybe English grammar isnít that important.
Toward the end of his exquisite speech, Carnegie, by now having
turned a bright and furious red, leaped up, banged a fist on the
table, and bellowed, "You act as if nothing has happened. If
I let them back now, my dignity as a human being would sink to the
ground. Donít try your powers of persuasion on me, Dr. óó. I
know what I think. I donít have to be told what to think."
Had he pounded that fist at any of the
five hundred faculty meetings Iíve since attended, Carnegie
wouldnít have been around very long. Heíd have been convicted
of arrogance, poor interpersonal skills, lack of collegiality,
insensitivity to students, insensitivity to minorities, sleeping
with the enemy and raising his voice.
Could I hope to find some respect for the
teacher and classroom restored among union activists? Certainly
the majority are passionate about their convictions, and the
public events planned for March 28 sounded well and goodóbut the
willingness of almost everyone to have the classroom serve the
political agenda alarmed me. The arguments came fast and furious,
illogical, self-serving and disrespectful, au fond, of both
classroom and teacher. What could be more important than TEACHING
CUNY? (Shakespeare? History? Grammar?) Whatever the subject,
integrate it. Students have a right to hear about the conditions
in which they learn and you shouldnít distance yourself from the
down and dirty. And the most insidiously destructive of all, if
you object to politicizing the classroom, youíre treated as a
reactionary who doesnít know all classes are political or
appreciate the "always already socially, politically
inflected dimension" of university teaching.
It will take, Iím afraid, more than
five consecutive adverbs to have me adopt the view that politics
infects all of our relationships. A major consequence of teaching
those two years in Somalia was that we came to be regarded, for
better or worse, not as imperialists or even Americans but simply
as people. The proof of this is in the friendships that have
endured, through plague and war, for nearly 40 years. No, Iím
afraid the argument I heard at Union Central constitutes a classic
petitio principii, in which the assumption that everything is
political succeeds in making everything political. It is the
defense of those who are so obsessed by their personal agenda that
they easily rationalize it into a pedagogical priority.
Little wonder then that even anonymous
students feel free to dump their trash into the classroom.