The second part of the 1990 documentary Berkeley in the Sixties is titled “Confronting America.” After the victory of the Free Speech movement on the Berkeley campus, the world transforms from black-and-white to color. Students decide to commit themselves to naming and controlling the system, else it destroy the world. They start to change: new ideas, new music, new hair, new groups, new consciousness. The counterculture enters the equation. More and more people start to turn on. They start to gather and collaborate in liberated territories. They march, they don helmets, they defend themselves from attacks by police. This gives way to “Part Three: Confronting History,” where armed revolutionary organizations like the Black Panthers step onstage and revolutionary confrontations occur in France, Japan, Mexico, and Czechoslovakia. “So much life, so much death,” as Michael Rossman notes in retrospect, “so much possibility, so much impossibility.” Now that all of these kids are at the table, what happens next? How do we let ourselves go and speak freely? How do we deactivate internal censors? Sons of Champlin sing in reply, “Get High.” Lovely midsection built around bells and vibes. Out of it we emerge giggling, “Where are we?” This new dawn looks fantastic. My students are bright and interesting. We spent the day together deconstructing and rebuilding our classroom in the spirit of power-sharing egalitarianism. The air feels rich with possibility. A voice speaks up and teaches, “Open doors, look around you: we’ve all been blessed with wings!”
Life unfolds in installments of day and night. For work I review the documentary Berkeley in the Sixties, a film I’ve watched and taught many times over the years. The first section of the film is titled “Confronting the University.” Berkeley President Clark Kerr appears before an audience attempting to rebrand the public university as an appendage of the “knowledge industry” and a focal point of fiscal growth for the state economy. Against him rise students like Jack Weinberg and Jackie Goldberg, young people who arrived to the university looking for truth and meaning. The university came to operate for them and for the other members of the Free Speech movement as a site for live, immediate, direct, hands-on transformation of society. As viewers we watch with some surprise as the movement succeeds in growing and repeatedly mobilizing a large coalition of members. The “children of affluence,” the future managers of the society realize in the thousands that their education has been designed to ruin them. The battle over free speech evolves into something more generalizable, something much more meaningful and appealing: a battle against dehumanization. The war of humanity against unchecked bureaucracy. Students at Berkeley made the radical choice to live, to revolt, to actively push back and participate in co-creation of the future through occupation of buildings. They gather in the agora of the auditorium and laugh and boo at and surround and confront the bald head of the head of the university, President Kerr. They talk about sitting down together and re-planning the whole structure of the university with a new conception of the purpose of education. They realize that the mechanisms that the Free Speech movement attempted to change are mechanisms operating throughout the society. As audience members, we realize the same is true today. Their story thus confronts us with the question, “What would WE say, how would WE behave, if we abolished hierarchy and suspended authority? What if we did that, here and now, in our classrooms?”
I should breathe and meditate and practice a yoga of writing, I tell myself. Work on centering. Like M.C. Richards, I should try in the first meetings of my classes this semester to develop with students “a sense of fellowship and mutual service” (Centering, p. 108). How do I encourage these strangers to speak directly to one another? Help them recognize the interrelation of each other’s temperaments. Richards captures this sense of interrelation through an “ecosystem” metaphor. “A class with different levels of aptitude and many kinds of response may bloom like a garden, full of color and texture. Every one has something to give the others. Every one may learn to receive from others. An atmosphere of helpfulness and realism may flourish” (108). Above all, I need to approach education as a craft. Be warm and trusting. Behave with loving kindness. Practice metamorphosis. Learn to serve the world. Richards’s book is the best statement on pedagogy I’ve ever read. “Let us teach in our classes,” she recommends, “the connection between who we think man is on the inside and what the atmosphere is like on the outside” (113). What do all of these slogans equate to, however, in terms of technique? Let us be supple enough to yield to the invasion of a new reality, and let us grow. Let there be dialogue. Let students share in the labors of community. As Richards notes, this is the demonstration of the value of the mode of pedagogy explored and practiced during her time teaching at Black Mountain College: “After attending such a school, no young adult is surprised to learn that food has to be provided, dishes done, sheets laundered, cows milked, milk skimmed and cooled, floors mopped, roads maintained, roofs repaired, children loved, guests housed, crises met, books mended, windows caulked, solitude respected, differences enjoyed, cooperation required, spontaneity used, judgments made and revised, help given by all to all, patience won” (121). I have to build into my course opportunities for students to engage in acts of making. “In making,” Richards writes, “we develop a feel for materials, for the play between purpose and accident and inspiration, for gestalt, for instrument, for becoming, for death as physical process essential to creation; and we are filled with wonder” (122).
Taut on the road, palms pressed, wheeling frankly. Where I grew up, it’s all boardwalks and water parks. Like our baby nephews, we dip! we dip! Just so long as there’s some lime and vodka to counteract the sounds and ideas of the cranberries. Let pawtips be pawtips, trusting the divinity and compassion of the whole person. Understanding goes without saying, beyond words, daily life reverberating with metaphor enough to crowd out the voice that says, “Fix it.” Education leads me to minding after Rudolph Steiner and curricula informed by the Waldorf method. M.C. Richards describes this method in her book Centering as one where “The teacher works in a certain state of mind, with certain knowledge and aims, primarily listening to what the child is telling him through its body and its behavior and its fantasies and its play and speech. He does not try to apply to a situation a form conceived in advance” (101). I take note of some of Richards’s suggestions, in hopes that her book will help me connect the dots for my course on Hippie Modernism. “Certain tendencies we should try to cure, others to strengthen,” she writes. “We should not neglect the child’s relation to hero worship and ceremony and ritual. He lives naturally in a world of myth and poetry and invisible beings. He loves sound and movement and color and drama. He loves to laugh and to cry. […]. As he grows older and learns to think abstractly, he will do so as a person in whose organism is rooted the wisdom of fairy tales, and saints’ legends, and cultural mythology” (Centering, p. 103). Hippie modernism produced what was and remains a revolutionary literature. It evokes, it exhorts, it grants permission to imagine radical creative transformation of social reality, beginning with exercises of individual freedom, particularly at the level of speech and intercourse with citizens in a loving global community. Authorly life coincides with experiments in communication and lived practice amid networks of revolutionary literary-artistic peers. No need to venture so far, though. We don’t want to write the introduction before having read the books. Why do I feel like I’m plotting a prison-break? Is it wrong to want to teach hope and possibility? It’s no naive hope; Charles Olson contemplates both ruin and survival as pertinent facts of our condition in his poem “The Kingfishers.” But into history’s mixed message, Olson introduces a message of hope, a factor to induce a change of state, only to then announce to his readers, “This very thing you are.”
Something new begins now, bursting forth in kaleidoscopic profusion. Neoliberal governance reaches new heights of absurdity through the invention of “lunch debt.” But the teacher strike in West Virginia points a way forward, a first win, to be followed as early as next month, perhaps, with a strike by teachers in Oklahoma. The path for wildcats intersects there with a key choke point for social reproduction: tests that qualify states for federal funding. By placing federal funding into jeopardy, the strike jumps levels and has the potential to capture full national attention. Together, teachers, parents, and students can dictate the terms of a new deal. For the Trump administration, the goal will be to crush teachers the way Reagan crushed PATCO, while maintaining a semblance of economic populism among the base. Notice the administration’s reluctance to engage the West Virginia action’s illegality. They’re wary of trying to uphold an unpopular and unenforceable law. But of course, they’ll have to intervene eventually. His fans already love watching him say, “You’re fired.” Yet this runs the risk of intensifying antagonisms and contradictions. With solidarity walkouts, one could begin to imagine coordinated strikes, extension of wildcat tactics into public higher ed, systemwide stoppages, the reactivation of class power among the dispossessed.
After 15 years of teaching, all I can say with confidence is that education dooms itself to the circular reproduction of an empty formalism the moment it becomes compulsory. To extract myself from complicity with these and other compulsions, I walk alone on a sunny day, and whenever else the spirit moves me, listening to “Catfish Blues” by Alexander.
Crows and squirrels appear into consciousness and greet me on my way. As I crest a hill, I imagine myself happening upon a serene alpine lake. Plants offer me high fives, along with other, as-yet-unnameable signs of congratulation. Aye, crow, I hear ye. Greet me here in my true guise, the god of layaway and roustabout. Itinerant wanderer, upswept in a quest narrative that, through its inward-pointedness and self-invention, defies the tropes of conquest-oriented heroic fantasy. I look down at a pile of papers I’m supposed to grade and wonder, “Why am I here, again?” “Before being a worker,” I exclaim, “I am a person, perplexed by an alien imposition, the compulsion to work. Why should I complete tasks imposed by others, given this society’s open, gun-brandishing contempt for the only freedom that matters, the freedom from want?” To my students who complain only of Isis, of terrorism but not the terrorism of capitalism, I want to reply, “Relax. You are a non-subject, a non-event. A non-player character. History operates despite you.” Other students, thankfully, mine included, are organizing as we speak. OUT OF THE SCHOOLS AND INTO THE STREETS.
An assortment of tasks, given a spin, directs force toward its center. Bound together thus, like a top or a Tasmanian Devil, these tasks are made harmless, the rooms they occupy cleared for better acts of enjoyment. Luck having turned for once in my favor, a turn for which I shall remain eternally grateful, I now possess the opportunity to teach three sections of a literature course of my choosing. What shall I choose? Given how wary I am of loading myself too heavily with work, I’ll most likely just opt for some variant of my present course. There will be time enough to experiment next spring.
Eyes closed while listening to Grand Ulena’s Gateway to Dignity, I imagine a pair of animated graffiti high tops stepping frenetically across a generic late-80s-videogame-graphic brick wall. Perhaps what I have in mind here is Ghetto Blaster, a computer game I played on my Commodore 64 when I was a kid. Minds orient themselves otherwise than toward disaster.