Education Opinion

Students Defend Public Education -- How about Teachers?

By Anthony Cody — September 30, 2009 1 min read
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Forty five years ago, UC Berkeley was rocked by the Free Speech Movement, which erupted over the university’s attempt to squelch political activism on campus.

Here is what movement leader Mario Savio said then:

We have an autocracy which runs this university. It's managed. We asked the following: if President Kerr actually tried to get something more liberal out of the Regents in his telephone conversation, why didn't he make some public statement to that effect? And the answer we received -- from a well-meaning liberal -- was the following: He said, "Would you ever imagine the manager of a firm making a statement publicly in opposition to his board of directors?" That's the answer! Now, I ask you to consider: if this is a firm, and if the Board of Regents are the board of directors, and if President Kerr in fact is the manager, then I'll tell you something: the faculty are a bunch of employees, and we're the raw material! But we're a bunch of raw material[s] that don't mean to have any process upon us, don't mean to be made into any product, don't mean to end up being bought by some clients of the University, be they the government, be they industry, be they organized labor, be they anyone! We're human beings!
There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part; you can't even passively take part, and you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop. And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!

I was only six years old at the time of the Free Speech Movement, but my parents were involved in the events that unfolded. Their bookstore on Telegraph Avenue was a hotspot in those days, and Mario Savio worked there in the 1970s. I helped organize a twentieth anniversary commemoration of the FSM when I was a student at Berkeley in the 1980s.

It is inspiring to see today’s students picking up the torch and fighting for the rapidly eroding principles of public education.

Last Thursday 5,000 students and staff at UC Berkeley walked out in protest over plans to boost fees by 32%, pushing attendance out of reach for many students.

A hundred miles away, at UC Santa Cruz, students have been occupying the Graduate Student Commons building for almost a week.

One student wrote, in a Communique from an Absent Future, words that carry an echo of Savio,

University life finally appears as just what it has always been: a machine for producing compliant producers and consumers. Even leisure is a form of job training. The idiot crew of the frat houses drink themselves into a stupor with all the dedication of lawyers working late at the office. Kids who smoked weed and cut class in high-school now pop Adderall and get to work. We power the diploma factory on the treadmills in the gym. We run tirelessly in elliptical circles.
It makes little sense, then, to think of the university as an ivory tower in Arcadia, as either idyllic or idle. "Work hard, play hard" has been the over-eager motto of a generation in training for...what?--drawing hearts in cappuccino foam or plugging names and numbers into databases. The gleaming techno-future of American capitalism was long ago packed up and sold to China for a few more years of borrowed junk. A university diploma is now worth no more than a share in General Motors.
We work and we borrow in order to work and to borrow. And the jobs we work toward are the jobs we already have. Close to three quarters of students work while in school, many full-time; for most, the level of employment we obtain while students is the same that awaits after graduation. Meanwhile, what we acquire isn't education; it's debt. We work to make money we have already spent, and our future labor has already been sold on the worst market around. Average student loan debt rose 20 percent in the first five years of the twenty-first century--80-100 percent for students of color. Student loan volume--a figure inversely proportional to state funding for education--rose by nearly 800 percent from 1977 to 2003. What our borrowed tuition buys is the privilege of making monthly payments for the rest of our lives. What we learn is the choreography of credit: you can't walk to class without being offered another piece of plastic charging 20 percent interest. Yesterday's finance majors buy their summer homes with the bleak futures of today's humanities majors.

Activists from around the state will gather at UC Berkeley on October 24 for a statewide conference to make further plans.

Update #1: Several hundred UC Berkeley students occupied the Anthropology library for 24 hours this weekend (Oct. 10-11) to protest budget cuts and library closings. Read details here.

Update #2: An agenda for the Oct. 24 Save Public Education conference has been posted here.

What do you think of the protest movement taking shape in California? What should be done to defend public education? What should teachers be doing?

Photo provided through Creative Commons, by Epiole.

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