No Longer Academic: When Activism Is on the Curriculum

howard_zinn.jpgHoward Zinn, the late self-described “socialist anarchist” history professor and mentor to the New Left, would have been proud of the way the Wisconsin protests rolled along.  The weeks-long sit-in of the Wisconsin state capitol building–heavily populated by teachers and students–exemplified the kind of “participatory democracy” his associate Tom Hayden promoted in the Port Huron Statement, the manifesto of the SDS.  For Zinn, education was a key component of  “guerilla warfare with the system,” as he wrote in SNCC: The New Abolitionists in 1964.  In 2009, he told students at the University of Wisconsin, “the best kind of education you can get is when you’re involved in social struggles for a cause.”  Zinn himself acted as provocateur to his students at Spelman and Boston University, encouraging them to act as subversives to the U.S. government and to their school’s administration.
 
Much of the public may want to leave the New Left to ancient history and simply cast their work in the humanities as the activities of eccentrics with little impact on day-to-day life.  Politicians and citizen groups leave curriculum development to the credentialed.  But behind ivy-covered walls changes instituted in the intervening decades were played out in Madison.  The standards of scholarship have been overturned, with overt political agendas replacing scholarly academic subjects, and “direct action” replacing scholarly modes of inquiry.  As a result, students today feel they are on a moral mission; they follow the lead of activist professors who flatter them with the idea that they are “critical thinkers,” while they guide them into mandatory “civic engagement” activities.  The new pedagogy of foundationless (anarchic) “critical thinking” and (democratic) “collaborative learning” make disrupting the legislative process seem like part of the school day.   
 
A guest post titled “From the Occupied Capitol,” by University of Illinois-Champagne graduate student Michael Verderame, in the Chronicle of Higher Education provided an apt example of the New Left’s influence.  Verderame joined a hundred other Illinois Graduate Employees Unions members in Wisconsin.  His post from inside the capitol resonated with the self-righteousness and self-congratulation of memoirs of 1960s veterans, especially Bill Ayers in Fugitive Days. “We went there in support not just of public workers in Wisconsin, but of the very idea of collective bargaining,” Verderame wrote.  He and fellow protestors wanted to “build on [the] energy” already in the occupied capitol, to support “union brothers’ and sisters’ rights.”  They formed a human chain around the capitol building.  He had scrawled a contact number on his arm in case of arrest, “a surreal experience for someone who’s never had a speeding ticket.”  At the end of the protest day, some protestors choose to leave, but several stay inside, “understanding that they were risking their own liberty to do so.”  Starvation was averted: “we were heartened to see food and supplies go in, as well as additional press.”  Word came at 7:00 p.m. that no one would be arrested–another close call.  Such melodrama reflected protest signs in Wisconsin as well as those I’ve seen in Atlanta, likening Governor Scott Walker to Mubarak and Hitler. 

Verderame, however, was clueless about how others might see his moral mission, for he wrote, “what we were doing in Madison was essential to secure the career I want to build, to protect the conditions for teaching and learning.”  (He made a note that some anti-Walker signs mocked the governor’s lack of a college degree.)

Verderame claimed to be “protect[ing] the conditions for teaching and learning,” undergrad Matt Payne complained in the Daily Cardinal at the University of Wisconsin: on February 18, he wrote, “leaflets encouraging students to walk out of class at 11:11a.m. littered the campus.  For the past week, UW students had been subject to cancelled classes, teaching assistants missing from office hours and megaphone-bearing organizers disrupting classes to encourage students to participate in the protests.”   On February 22, the Student Free Press reported that 2,000 participants responded to the call by the Teaching Assistants Association at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for a “teach-out” for students, faculty, and staff, and walked to the state capitol.  Instead of classes, “teach-ins” were held in the libraries, and “discussion sessions” were held in coffee shops in and around the capitol, according to a TAA spokesperson quoted in the article. 
 
But at the Capitol, it wasn’t a jolly 1960s-themed party for everyone.  While those like Verderame may have relished the heady atmosphere, state employees found it difficult to work amidst the drumming and chanting.  They reported being verbally accosted and threatened by protestors. They needed to keep their office doors locked and find police escorts to use the restrooms, and to enter and leave the building.   
 
But for the graduate students who seek the easy life of secure employment teaching soft subjects tailored to ideological proclivities nurtured in the classroom, such protests are a boon to egos.  Plus, such activities will likely pay off for them in the job market, especially for candidates applying for the positions like that of Professor of Social Justice and Sustainability at Chatham University.  And consider Verderame’s course of study: “19th-century British literature with a focus on literature and the environment.” 
 
Candidates would likely be interviewed by someone like Michael K. Honey,  Fred T. and Dorothy G. Haley Endowed Professor of the Humanities, and Professor of Labor and Ethnic Studies and American History at the University of Washington at Tacoma.  His university web page brags that he is a veteran “civil rights and civil liberties organizer” and “an educator who combines scholarship with civic engagement.”  Honey uses the public university’s web page to advertise himself as a public speaker (“Availability and costs are variable”), with suggested topics like “What Would Martin Luther King Say About the Iraq War?” and “Martin Luther King’s Unfinished Agenda and Today’s Struggles for Justice.”  His “Approved Biography Text” plugs his “talks” for being “well-known for taking a critical perspective on the past and present, using narrative, images, and song.”  According to his posted curriculum vitae, Honey gave presentations and convention addresses to the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.  Writing at the History News Network, he compared the Madison protests to King’s organizing Memphis sanitation workers and concludes, “It’s 1968 All Over Again, and King’s Fight for Unions Is Still Essential.”
 
Honey claims that “the one toe-hold many black and minority workers (and especially the women among them) still have in the economy is in unionized public employment)”; he ironically accuses conservatives of inciting “class envy” as an “easy means to divide and rule” by comparing public- and private-sector workers.  One doubts that students would learn about even FDR’s arguments against public unions from him.  Honey promotes himself as an advocate for the working class, but also profits from this stance, as Verderame does, as Bill Ayers did (and still does in college  lectures around the country), and as Howard Zinn did in promoting himself in Hollywood through his People’s History of the United States.
 
This worker narrative is also promoted on the street, in state capitols and in front of state capitols as it was during the SEIU demonstration of solidarity in front of the Georgia capitol on February 23.  Various preachers, politicians, and representatives from the SCLC and NAACP chanted about an “injustice in Wisconsin” being an injustice “everywhere” and “union yes, slavery no.”  Signs demanded, “Stop the War on Workers.”  As in Madison, socialist and communist groups made their presence known.

5455093408_818cfa8886.jpgMany of the movers and shakers of these socialist groups are tenured academics, as a glance through Key Wiki or Discover the Networks will show.  These 1960s radicals and their intellectual heirs not only inspire students inside their classrooms, but formally organize them through activist groups.  Zinn, along with a number of former SDS members-turned-tenured-professors, like Weatherman co-founders Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, revived  SDS in the Movement for a Democratic Society.  Tenured professors like Frances Fox Piven and Cornel West addressed groups like Young Democratic Socialists.  A group that organizes the students, Democratic Socialists of America, deliberately recalls the 1960s as it brags in a blog post that “the largest crowds since Vietnam march in Madison.” 

The fruit of the New Left is visible as professors encouraged students to join the protests and cancelled classes in Wisconsin and surrounding states.  They joined forces with Obama’s Organizing for America in bringing in student protestors, thereby continuing their work from the presidential campaign. 
 
Today, nearly fifty years after Port Huron, such politicization is taken as a matter of course.  For example, Professor Honey, in a publication that restricts submissions to professional historians, admits that “[union] dues-paying workers provide a potent base for the Democratic Party.” 
 
Despite all the accoutrements of 1960s protests–the drumming, chanting, human chains, sit-ins, sleep-ins, teach-ins, and teach-outs inside the Wisconsin capitol—the issue is the retention of political power through Big Education.  Unions are necessary to maintain this power.  The professors are using their classroom bully pulpits to shape “change agents” who will protect their jobs by picking up bullhorns and sleeping on the floors.  The scene in Wisconsin reveals what the much-studied Malcolm X said, “the chickens have come home to roost.”  These chickens are coming from the English and history classes.  Political leaders should take note. 
 

Mary Grabar

Mary Grabar is a visiting fellow at the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization.

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