I don't fancy myself one of those change a life by leading a college class type of instructors. Those who teach at the primary and secondary school level have more solid claims on that power than those who teach at colleges and universities. Why? Most of the answer lies in the fact that we live in an age where a college degree is obligatory. Thus, we deal more with snowflakes who are clocking in time for the necessary credits, than we do with young intellectuals who believe that knowledge and learning can be transformative.
All those qualifiers noted, there are still moments where I have to repress a smile as a student has a lightbulb moment. These instances of critical self-awareness can come from growth where before there was weakness and intellectual flaccidity; these same moments can also occur when a student realizes that they played themselves, their priors now dispelled, and basic fictions about how the world works beyond their own ego upset.
Because I am a sadist I like the first, but I revel in the latter...forgive me that trait for I was trained by Jesuits.
This quarter I am blessed with a good group of students. Although many are still finding their way, for the most part they are engaged and curious. I am doubly fortunate to have an arch-conservative as my interlocutor. There is no malice, this student simply asks good questions which proceed from a set of ideological priors that he has yet to realize are not universal. Moreover, my conservative charge has yet to realize that not all opinions are created equal, and that Fox News talking point conservatism is utterly dishonest as it is based precisely on a rejection of empirical reality in the pursuit of a narrow political agenda.
In short, said student is good fun because his questions keep me on my toes.
To this point in class, we have had two exchanges which speak to how the mythologies of American political culture are taken as truths by those more conservatively oriented and that reveal how Conservatism is bankrupt as an ideology, in this, our time of the Great Recession.
The first moment came in our discussing the myth of meritocracy, American exceptionalism, and the Great Recession where he recycled the standard story of how America is a great country of opportunity, the best country in the world in fact, as well as the most productive, innovative, and most dynamic economy that has ever been seen on this planet.
I queried, "how does the Great Recession and the fact that America has decreasing rates of intergenerational mobility, a shrinking middle class, and is solidly subpar in education, health, and many other measures, complicate your narrative of American greatness?"
He replied, taking a pause to reconcile rhetoric with facts, "these problems are just part of the business cycle, and no big deal because they are normal."
My reply, "can we tell those folks who are now structurally unemployed through no fault of their own that they can eat the business cycle when they are hungry? Is there barbeque sauce with that meal?"
My point was a simple one, and one I stress often--the world of theory exists relative to the world of facts...and real people's experiences. If you overlook this dynamic then you are only getting part of the story.
This was just a lead-in and preamble for our most recent "teachable moment."
Homelessness is a frightening concept that most folks of any age would rather look away from than acknowledge. To accommodate this mass societal version of the bystander effect, there are cultural scripts with the standard players of "the deserving" and "undeserving poor," where "those people" are drug addicts or "lazy," and consequently they "deserve" their position in life.
Who, especially among the young with an ostensibly bright future ahead of them, would want to entertain how the myth of meritocracy may leave them one of the working poor, a paycheck or illness away from the street, panhandling on a corner, couch surfing, or living in a car?
Who would want to acknowledge the scary thought that they could be one of the lost generation?
In class, we discussed these dynamics and how the new poor are the formerly middle class, and how/if this will shake up public policy and political alignments in the United States? Given the old joke that a Republican is a Democrat who got robbed, and that a Democrat is a Republican who lost their job, what will the Great Recession hold for the future of American politics and the two party system?
An important detail for context and flavor: The students in my classes run the gamut from working class, to the poor, to the solidly middle class, and also include a sprinkling of the born on the third base of life trustafarians who believe they hit a triple in life crowd. Consequently, our discussions about class and social mobility are almost always quite compelling.
During our most recent conversation, my conservative friend chimed in that the American middle class is not becoming the new poor and homeless, that one can work and make it if they only applied themselves, and that this talk about the new poor is exaggerated and flies in the face of the American dream. It simply can't be true. Impossible.
I shared some data on poverty, the record numbers of people on food stamps in America, and provided some context for the specious argument that the American poor have it well off (and the bigger game of Tea Party GOP Ayn Randian libertarianism on behalf of struggling millionaires) as a frame and meme in defense of austerity for the rest of us while the kleptocrats get to keep all of their wealth.
A student raised his hand and asked if he could comment. He looked to our arch-conservative friend and explained that his father was a construction worker who owned a nice home. They were not rich, but he and his dad were solidly middle class. This all came undone with the crash of the housing market, an illness, and the utter collapse of the economy in the town where they lived. After the savings was gone, and the retirement fund spent, our honest and sharing student explained that he had to move in with a friend's family while his father lived in a van.
The latter's only salvation was the kindness of several strangers, migrant day laborers, who had a small studio apartment which they allowed him to move in to as it became dangerously cold in the fall and winter months.
After this moment of sharing you could hear a pin drop. No response or retort was offered. My conservative friend sat silenced, wheels turning but finding no traction. To his benefit, he was the beneficiary of the great time keeper's charity as class mercifully ended.
I do not know if that was a tranformative moment for this young arch-conservative. Perhaps, it was sustenance for the other students in the class whose families are also struggling in the Great Recession, as from that moment of sharing they knew they were not alone. I simply smiled because I felt that some good had come from that exchange.
I also smiled as that class further reinforced my allegiance to Black Pragmatism.
At present, one of the great divides in American politics during the Age of Obama is an utter failure by those on the Right, and conservatives at large, to have any sympathy or empathy for those less fortunate, who may be different from them, or somehow the Other. Most conservatives cannot imagine that it could be them who is downsized, unemployed, or in need of the social safety net to keep a roof over their head or food in the childrens' bellies.
The irony of course is that most of the Right, and the Tea Party GOP especially, benefit greatly from the social contract and want to keep supports such as social security, medicare, and medicaid in place--but only for folks like them, within their narrow tribe of "real Americans" and those suitably "patriotic" and nationalistic. Others can be damned for they are "unproductive," "liberals," "lazy," or practice/benefit from "class warfare" against the rich.
We shall see if the exchange in my class, a moment where a free market trickle down conservative met the face that is the human consequence and collateral damage of robber baron, dysfunctional unfettered capitalism, will change how a young arch-conservative thinks about politics. It probably will not. But we sensible and reasonable folks who believe that education can serve the interests of the Common Good can hope and dream just a little bit.
Can't we? Or is the die already cast, the roll spent?