Reality Check

Recall that elegant Hate-In, Proposition 187? In 1994, our very own right-wing Orange County nativists managed to qualify for the state ballot an initiative denying public education and health-care benefits to non-citizens. Everybody knew it was unconstitutional, not to mention sadistic and petty, but much of the right's election strategy depended on getting out votes. What better way than the old scapegoat strategy?

My wife (also a teacher) and I hosted a fund-raising dinner at our home, as did thousands of Californians, to fight this odious initiative. We cheerfully asked everybody we knew, handing out invitations like candy. Although 75 showed that night, a colleague noted the absence of all but a few fellow teachers from the local community college.

I explained that we had invited nearly every teacher, administrative and classified employee on our tiny campus. A handful had sent checks, offered regrets, and Lisa and I were pleased with the turnout. Still, our friend couldn't believe that so few instructors had attended.

"Why," she asked, "are they even teachers?"

As an undergrad at a state college in the early 1980s, my best instructors were activists. The chairperson of the comparative-literature department co-founded the Alliance for Survival. My English teacher sued the U.S. Navy for refusing to confirm or deny the presence of nuclear weapons at nearby Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station. My women's studies instructor challenged certification of ROTC as an academic program. Another instructor was targeted by the religious right for, among other things, the Che Guevara poster hung in her office, with Che's famous quote: "At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love."

I was a dumb 18-year-old kid from Downey, but I could see pretty easily why these people were teachers, and I understood as I'd never understood in high school why I was a student: education is not a neutral "tool" or a benign hobby or a self-improvement course or job training. It is not about the wishful thinking of upper- and middle-class privilege or about rearranging the furniture in a shabby, taxpayer-funded ivory tower. It's about joining a world where people who know what is really going on take responsibility. And about following the sober, inspiring counsel of Allen Ginsberg: "Abandon hope. Embrace reality."

As a freshman at Cal State Long Beach, I didn't know a lot about reality—how could I?—so I started catching up, reading outside of class, subscribing to newspapers, and listening—almost obsessively—to National Public Radio and Pacifica. Today, I advise students that the quickest way to achieve civic literacy is to keep KCRW or KPFK on in the background.

Don't mistake this variety of learning for autodidactism. There's no such thing as being only self-taught. I learned plenty from my A.P. history teacher at Warren High School in Downey. Lecturing on World War II and Hiroshima, she had opined breezily that "we" should have bombed Moscow after dropping atomic weapons on Japan. Why, I wonder now, was she a teacher?

Sure, my activist college professors radicalized me. They taught me to ask who this "we" was that bombed people. But my radicalization didn't take much. My high school in Downey was originally named "Earl Warren." When the "liberal" Warren became chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, the city mothers and fathers lobbied to drop his first name.

A "warren," by the way, is a burrow wherein dwell rabbits.

Today, I teach at a big state university where I am, you will not be surprised to learn, a cross between Mister Rogers ("Hi, neighbor") and Eugene Debs ("I am prepared to fight in any way the ruling class may make necessary"). The first thing I ask students is to describe themselves by creating a list of adjectives from newspapers and everyday socio-political language. I might describe myself, I tell them (again, no surprise), as a middle-class, white male, feminist, left-progressive, anti-militarist, anti-racist, registered Green, pro-human rights, anti-corporate activist. (Or something equally whimsical and clumsy.) Most UC Irvine students can't immediately do that, of course; nobody taught them how. So we examine reality together, discovering how, for example, to read a newspaper. (Many freshman think daily papers are run by the U.S. government or are not-for-profit community-service organs.) Finally, we "learn to pronounce reality correctly," as the Greek writer Odysseus Elytis advised. That's what my education at a publicly funded state college did for me: it taught me to pronounce reality. That's what education is supposed to do, right?

 
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