Being and consciousness in academe

Michael Yates mikey+ at
Sun Dec 17 14:00:41 MST 2000

Here is something I wrote as part of a larger but unfinished project.
In rereading it, I detect a good deal of bitterness. I would have liked
to have been on a campus in which the students were protesting, but I
was not.

Michael yates

        Once a person realizes that his or her labor is being exploited by an
employer and that this exploitation is not necessary, it becomes
difficult to find satisfaction in work.  Of course, the nature of most
work, de-skilled, sped-up, unhealthy, and used to produce debased
products, makes in unlikely that anyone could enjoy it for long.  My own
work, as we have seen, has only recently been subjected to the
inevitable capitalist degradation, but I have not enjoyed it much for a
long time.  The high hopes which I entertained for many years have been
dashed, and I labor on to support my children and to build up enough
money in my pension account to retire and devote the rest of my life to
something else.

        In the beginning, my students were more often than not the children of
working class parents from the local region plus adult working men and
women taking evening classes.  I felt comfortable teaching these
students, although it would have been better if there had been a more
ethnically and racially diverse student body.  As I developed a radical
understanding of society, I thought my teaching could help to instill a
radical consciousness in my students and that some of them would carry
this into whatever work they did.  I had no illusions that very many of
them would become socialists, but a few of them did become union
organizers, teachers, and socially conscious lawyers and professionals.
Students sometimes asked me to conduct informal seminars on subjects
such as Marx's Capital.  We met at my apartment or in dorm rooms and had
lively discussions of everything from drug use to radical Chinese
literature. .I knew that I was getting through to some of my students
when one of them told a friend, "I know that Mike is right , but I can't
believe it."  I began to invite more radical speakers to my classes and
to the school, trying to get students to see that there were a lot of
ugly things going on and that they could and should do something about

        During the last half of the 1970s things began to change.  The business
community  recovered from the shock of the 1960s and the radical student
movement and  reasserted itself on the campuses.  The economy began a
long period of stagnation, and the tight labor markets of my  young
adulthood disappeared, creating economic insecurity among my students.
In response, the colleges showed themselves to be tightly allied with
business.  Funding for humanities and social sciences, the fields most
likely to provide students with a critical world view, tightened, and
money was showered upon the business programs which began to sprout up
everywhere.  My college jumped on the bandwagon, urged to action by the
local business elite, who felt that they had a right to tell the college
what to do.  Not that they had to work hard at this.  Our dean and
president were only too happy to accommodate them.  They unabashedly
bought the argument that students needed to pursue "studies" that would
prepare them for the real world of work, especially now that the economy
had soured.  Soon the school had a business major, designed, to their
everlasting regret, by my colleagues in economics.  I refused to
participate, warning that a business major would bring us poor students
and incompetent teachers.  When I raised this problem with the dean, he
justified the new programs by saying that the business community had the
right to get its viewpoint across.  As if all members of this society
are not inundated, morning, noon, and night, by the business community's

        A second thing that has had an impact on my job has been a major shift
in our student body.  Since the mid-1970s the student body has changed
dramatically, not just in terms of what they majored in, but also in
terms of their social class background.  It wasn't bad enough that I
lost all of my economics majors to business and that the classes they
now took stupefied them and made them dumber at the end of four years
that at the beginning.  Worse was that they were affluent suburbanites
whose conservative and consumption-oriented lifestyles made them
uninterested in learning and smug in their lack of academic ability or
interest.  I never minded if students did not know much as long as they
wanted to learn.  I went to whatever lengths necessary to encourage
them.  I once took a poor black guy with substandard prior schooling
aside in my introductory economics class.  I told him that I could tell
that he was curious about economics, but if we followed the syllabus, he
would fail.  So I told him to ignore the textbook and read (and write
about) some other books instead.  We read Blues People by Leroi Jones
and some other works I've since forgotten, and he passed the course with
flying colors.  I am sure that the confidence he gained in this course
helped him to get through college.  By the 1980s I stopped getting
students like this; and I have not had a request for an informal seminar
in years.  Instead I got spoiled and racist yuppie "wannabes" with nice
cars who thought of college as one more commodity to buy.  Once they
paid for it, their obligations ended and mine began.  I began to find it
harder to enjoy preparing complicated and polished lectures knowing that
not many students would appreciate them or perhaps bother to attend them
at all.  At times, the actual classroom performance became almost
unbearable, and I found myself losing my temper more often than usual.

        Today my college does not seem very different than the high school I so
scorned.  Most students come to us pretty ignorant, and we just offer
more remedial classes and "dumb down" the rest of them.  Ironically, the
majors with the most students, such as business, elementary education,
and communications, don't require much intellectual deadening because
they offer courses of study already firmly in the realm of banality.  I
have had students so dense (I am not laying any blame here) that they
could not have passed any course, yet when I have looked at their
transcripts, they had solid "B's" in these very subjects.  The end
result of this is that college has become just another holding ground
for most young people unfit yet for the middle reaches of the job
market.  Students understand that putting in the time is what counts, so
they are not going to be bothered with exerting themselves overmuch.
They will hound and harass me about their grades, believing that these
might make the difference in what job they end up getting.  They do not
make any connection between the grade and the amount of work they did or
the knowledge and understanding they acquired.  These are beside the
point.  What they make is the connection between the money they and
their parents have paid and a course with a decent grade.

        Once I had a minimal understanding of the operation of our system of
higher education, I came to expect that the administrators would never
care about real education and would oppose anything I held dear.  But I
was dismayed by the attitude of the faculty.  I found it difficult to
come to grips with their combination of elitism toward working class
people and subservience toward those with power over them.  As a group,
teachers lack courage; no matter what is done to them, they will not
confront power directly.  As the labor market for teachers has softened,
this cowardice has gotten worse.  New teachers devote all of their time
to building up their dossiers for contract renewal and then tenure.
They are told not to rock the boat, and they do not.  Some say that when
they get tenure, they will be more vocal, but this is seldom the case.
I do not know a single young faculty member who would now take the risks
we took to try to unionize the faculty when we were instructors.  Tho
older faculty are, for the most part, content to live the relatively
easy life of a college professor; they cannot be bothered with any type
of confrontational organizing.  To them, such activity is somehow
impolite or implies that they take sides, when the whole idea of being a
teacher is one of strict neutrality.  As I think back on it, we were
lucky to get as many teachers to support the union as we did.  Sadly,
most teachers do not keep themselves intellectually alive, or if they
do, it is with matters so narrow and specialized as not to matter to
anyone but themselves and their small circle of "experts."

        By the time Reagan became President, it was patently clear that the
universities of the United States were no longer the centers for social
change they had been during the heady days of the anti-war movement of
the 1960s and early 1970s.  I could no longer believe that what I did as
a teacher affected the larger society.  This increased my
dissatisfaction with my job, but it led me to seek alternative work.  If
I was going to teach about workers and work, then I had better have
meaningful contacts with working class organizations.  I gradually
expanded my connections with workers from the workers on campus to those
outside it.  I did this, first, by becoming part of the struggle for
justice for farm workers.  I had speakers come to class; I gave talks
and raised money off campus; and ultimately I went to work for the
United Farm Workers Union.  A few years later, I began a new career as a
part-time labor educator, teaching union workers a wide variety of
courses throughout western Pennsylvania.  This work gradually expanded
to include writing articles and books for a working class audience.  My
alienation from my employment as a college teacher has continued to
deepen, but at least now I have found work meaningful enough to
compensate somewhat for this.

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