In a world that often feels like its spiraling towards chaos, here’s something I’m thankful for. Something that gives me–dare I say it–hope.
A former student from two years back stops by during my office hours, unannounced. He’s now a junior, thinking of a senior honors thesis, maybe grad school. I’m not surprised by this part; he was one of the sharpest students in that seminar (“Literature and Society” it was called). A *very* smart reader, and a good writer, too.
I *am* surprised to see him in my office though. He often seemed frustrated in our class, annoyed at others for not being as up to speed as he was–like they were holding him back. (And like maybe I, too, as teacher, was complicit in this.) At times, he came off to me as conservative and skeptical and maybe even narrowly out for himself, as if he were approaching our course more as a demanding customer, rather than as part of a community. Like he just wanted his “A” so he could move on.
When the topic of economic inequality came up one day in class, he was that white guy who argued passionately against the idea of raising the minimum wage to fifteen $/hour, because as a trained and devoted EMT *he* hardly made that much…and should fast food workers really get the same pay that a medical professional earns? Wouldn’t giving these lowly service-workers a raise negate all the effort that *he* had put in to bettering himself?
Needless to say, we had us some struggles.
Seeing him at my door, my first thought was that maybe he was hard up for a letter of recommendation. Some application deadline forcing him my way. I had, after all, given him his “A.”
But now here we are sitting in my office, and he’s leading us into a discussion about critical theory, literature, and marxism, about Jameson and Lukacs, Taylorism and totality. (He’s skeptical; totality seems too seamless and pessimistic). It’s clear that he has been reading whatever he can get his hands on. And now we’re talking about capitalism and the limited semi-autonomy of the public sphere and cultural works within neoliberalism, and suddenly he turns to me and says:
“Man, that discussion we had in class about the minimum wage, and the way you pushed me to rethink my position…that really had an impact on me…That was really important.”*
And then we go on discussing, about how it’s possible for people to become psychologically invested in positions and identities that actually are not in their own best economic interest–not to mention being ethically problematic–and how this relates to race and to gender and nationalism as well as class…and how maybe it might just be possible for literature, for culture, for classrooms, for people to resist individualism and the cold cash nexus, to carve out spaces for human connection and solidarity. How maybe the possibility of a fundamentally different kind of world can be glimpsed through the cracks in this one…if we learn how to look for it.
We shook hands goodbye, but I wanted to hug him.
And this is why I’m thankful: Because principled struggles with people plant seeds and sometimes these seeds find soil to sprout, even when you don’t expect it.
Because sometimes our assumptions about other people’s social views can prove to be one-sided, or even flat out wrong.*
Because situations change, and surprises happen.
And it hits me: this is why I don’t give up on people who say backwards shit.
And this is why we must defend the humanities.
And this is why we must support and defend public education.
And this is why we shouldn’t reduce people to the flat floor of their weakness: they might just vault from their greatest strength.
Not just in classrooms, but in our broader social movement, it seems a crucial point to bear in mind.
Our impatient and cynical times encourage us to give up on those who express confused, antisocial, or backward views. The Twitter-verse entices us to score points at the expense of the problematic and the privileged. Indeed, with so much work to be done, nothing that anyone says seems quite good enough.
And certainly, as events in Minneapolis and elsewhere make clear, there are genuine enemies of the struggle out there, people who cannot be reasoned with, who have declared war on the movement for social justice, who must simply be defeated. Forces against whom the people must be defended.
Yet it remains crucial to resist the urge to lump those who express bad ideas in with the ‘Enemy’ camp. The temptation to give up on everyday people is a suicidal urge for any moment that seeks truly radical and emancipatory change. Instead, it behooves us to be patient with those who still might be reached, including even those who argue most vociferously against us.
We must continue to struggle, to be sure–there is no facile optimism here–but patiently and humbly, having faith in the basic decency of people.
If we can work to unite with strengths to overcome weaknesses, rather than focusing on weaknesses to undercut strengths, we all might discover something surprising to be thankful for.
* Note: In a follow-up email, my student clarified the situation further: “I was all for raising the minimum wage,” he tells me, “I think there was just some general anxiety about a) losing my privilege and b) the move away from the emphasis placed on the individual, one in which I felt that my individual accomplishments and “value” might be compromised.” As he added, “I think there’s a weird sort of internal conflict in more typical liberals who still hold individualism as an ideal in society, which is really difficult to reconcile with the desire for significant social change.” Well said.