Last weekend I learned that the course I was hired to teach at San Jose State University– American Civilization– was cancelled for financial reasons. This decision, made under the extraordinary duress caused by the California Legislature’s unwillingness to fund the California State University system adequately, comes at a time when I have already lost employment at San Francisco State University– again, because CSU is so desperately starved of the money it needs. This spring, then, I will continue to write my dissertation and seek employment.
Teaching for CSU has been an indispensable experience. I have found that my students are themselves good teachers, demonstrating an intellectual curiosity that has pushed me to deepen my knowledge of the United States, its culture and history.
Many people– I say again, please mark it, many people– with families and obligations have been profoundly impacted by the California Legislature’s inability to discharge its fundamental duty, as section 9 of the state constitution phrases it, to promote “a general diffusion of knowledge and intelligence.” We know now that perhaps 40,000 young Californians will not be attending CSU in the coming years. The annual price Californians pay to support their fellow citizens’ efforts to obtain an education– about $6,000 per student– is apparently too great a sacrifice. This in a state that spends almost $50,000 a year on every prisoner it incarcerates.
Had American Civilization not been cancelled I would have taught my students about a remarkable man named Olaudah Equiano, an enslaved African, largely self-educated, who manumitted himself and devoted the rest of his life to fighting slavery. My students would have learned that contrary to one of the core conceits of our national mythology– the flight from religious persecution as the cause of immigration– the vast majority of even the earliest colonists came to North America for economic reasons. They would have read some of the words of Jefferson, Paine, Wheatley, Douglass, Thoreau, Red Jacket, Stanton and Stowe. They would have encountered the terrible purity and truculence of John Brown’s abolitionist convictions, the strange development of America’s first form of truly nation-wide popular culture, minstrelsy. They would, I hoped, have begun to integrate the disparate events, figures and forces of American history in order to come to a fuller understanding of their country as it now exists. They would have developed the intellectual tools necessary to grasp the tension between America’s ideals and its historical realities.
Fight to fund CSU.
Above: Students protest budget cuts at UC Berkeley on Thursday.