The day before a strike by service employees and graduate students at the University of California last week, Alexander Coward, a Berkeley math lecturer, sent out an e-mail to his students.
In that e-mail, Coward explained to his students that “whatever the alleged injustices are that are being protested about tomorrow, it is clear that you are not responsible for those things, whatever they are, and I do not think you should be denied an education because of someone else’s fight that you are not responsible for”.
Coward has since said that he didn’t “want to get embroiled in the conflict about how workers are being treated”, admitting that he “[hasn’t] made [himself] an expert about that”. But refusing to allow this ignorance to deter him, he maintained that “from a practical point of view I’ve made my decision and you should all turn up to class and discussion tomorrow as normal”.
His e-mail—amounting to an injunction to selfishness and myopia on the part of Berkeley’s students—has caused waves across the internet. And Berkeley, or more accurately, Berkeley’s administrators, have chosen to use his e-mail as a weapon to wield against the bonds which ought to hold students, faculty, and staff together as members of a community. By posting a message which clearly tells students that the welfare of workers on their campus is none of their affair on its official facebook page, and publishing it in the alumni magazine, the University has given its official imprimatur to Coward’s e-mail. Even if he didn’t intend it as a commentary on University politics, it has now become a piece of official propaganda, and its amoral message should be refuted as often as possible.
I wonder who Coward thinks empties the wastebin in his office, or cleans up the debris from the floor of his lecture hall. Who blows the leaves off of Sproul Plaza? Who feeds students in the dorms, and tends to them if they have to visit a hospital? If something breaks down in a building, who fixes that? Why is one day of his class more important than the welfare of the people who make an education at UC Berkeley possible for students?
Invoking globalisation and the extent to which our world is interconnected, Coward told students that they would “have to solve some very hard problems, as well as figure out how best to use new technology for good, while at the same time facing human dangers that have haunted humanity throughout history. Part of the work of your generation is going to be technological, using scientific ideas to serve the interests of society, and part of the work is going to be fundamentally human, tied inexorably with qualities of the human condition—human emotion—that dominate the whole of history”.
In a world as complicated as ours, in which individuals are required to make decisions daily which call upon them to establish and where possible act upon moral premises, treating the University—supposedly the training ground for a virtuous life—as a space where morality oughtn’t to apply seems dispiritingly dangerous.
When the ability of students to access and afford higher education is so inextricably tied up in the political-economy of our society, treating the University and the education it offers there as an ivory tower does a disservice to our institution and the people struggling to live, work, and study here.
In its earlier, less democratic iterations, Universities were torn between serving the interests of their inhabitants and those of society. The beauty of the public research University in the United States—a model increasingly exported in the latter part of the twentieth century—is that those interests merged. California’s universities are designed to serve our state and the people living in it, and its students are the future of that state. Because of this connection, the clean divide invoked by Coward between what we do in the University and what occurs outside its boundaries is imaginary and dangerous. He is seeking to persuade students that their individual interests as students are somehow more important and more worthy than those of their neighbours, and of other members of the society that they inhabit.
“Think globally, act locally”, has become something of a cliché associated with discussions about agency in a global world. And yet it accurately reflects the idea that our actions in one part of the world might have a variety of ramifications elsewhere. Our futures are tied up with those of our neighbours here and across the globe, and acting in a moral fashion within our communities is the readiest way of taking a stand against the forces which seek to devalue institutions of higher education and the people who labour within them.
Berkeley has long been known for its activism, radicalism even. In the 1960s and 1970s, students revolted against an administration which sought to keep politics away from students and to stifle their ability to express themselves at a time when their country was bogged down fighting a colonial war in Southeast Asia and at a time when many of them would be expected to loyally serve the military waging that war. They made this call for free speech and peace at a moment when our country was locked in a struggle over civil rights. A second wave occurred in the 1980s when students asserted that the UC Regents should not invest their money in apartheid South Africa. It took years of direct action, during which campaigners suffered sustained police violence, to force the Regents to follow the moral lead taken by students and divest.
And since 2009, students have pointed out the relationship between the fallout from the recession, the retreat of the state from the public sphere, and the inexorable rises in student tuition alongside administrative salaries. The burdens students bear at UC, they have argued, mirror those which the twenty-first century U.S. workforce faces at a time when union rights are stripped away and CEO compensations skyrocket, key indicators of the unconscionable inequality which now characterises our society.
To my mind, those are noble struggles and a noble history. But it is one which Coward would ask us to sacrifice to a more technocratic version of education which is separated from citizenship and acts of moral courage which benefit others.
The alumni newsletter which praised Coward’s e-mail noted that “many have thanked [Coward] for reminding them of the value of their education”. A student columnist in the Daily Californian celebrated Coward’s “noble act”, expressing appreciation for his words about “how exceptional he thinks each and every student in his class is”. The columnist quoted Coward writing, “Do not fall into the trap of thinking that you focusing on your education is a selfish thing. It’s not a selfish thing. It’s the most noble thing you could do”.
The columnist went on to express the belief that “I don’t believe those who didn’t show up to the protest were being passive bystanders. Just as standing in the rain while chanting for justice is one type of courage, so is showing up to class, determined not to miss anything that might be informative and fighting for your education. Protesting may be the right thing to do in someone’s book, but learning about derivatives might be the right thing in mine”.
But ultimately, Coward’s Randian message is a comforting one, not a courageous one. He is articulating Berkeley’s own version of the doctrine of “American Exceptionalism” which characterises our country writ large. Just as that doctrine—which espouses the absurd notion that the United States is the only country where people work hard, dream big, tackle difficult problems, etc—has become a substitute for thought and action in our country, absolving us of the need to cultivate any capacity for self-criticism, Coward’s injunction to self-absorption encourages Berkeley students to indulge in the conceit that they are unique in their travails, their work ethic, and the importance of their work, such that they can justly ignore what is taking place around them.
And just as “American Exceptionalism” has crippled our country’s ability to actually meet challenges or take seriously our crisis of inequality, the message that Coward is peddling will cripple Berkeley and UC’s ability to meet the challenges which threaten to transform our institutions beyond recognition—and not for the better.
For there is no difference between that logic which increases tuition, drives public disinvestment, and instrumentalises education on the one hand, and that logic which casualises labour, sidelines solidarity, and insists that workers are expendable cogs rather than members of our community.
Learning about derivatives is important. But the point that the people were making when they stood in the rain and demonstrated their solidarity in the face of these changes was slightly different. They were arguing—correctly in my view—that if we don’t combine our efforts to put pressure on the administration and state government, the number of people who will be able to afford to come to our University to learn about derivatives or anything else in an environment which respects intellectual inquiry will be severely circumscribed.
In a political climate where denial is the order of the day, seeking comfort in homilies which reassure us that we can forge ahead with no thought for the society in which we are embedded is a recipe for disaster. Facing up to the difficulty of the struggles ahead of us is what requires real courage.