On November 20, hundreds of unionized graduate student instructors at Berkeley went on a 24-hour solidarity strike to protest the university’s intimidation tactics against university support staffers who’d gone on strike this past spring. An e-mail from a mathematics faculty member to his grad instructors explaining why he was crossing the picket line and why they should too went viral. For the prof, named Alexander Coward, also saw reason to protest: to dissent against the silly notion of solidarity in the first place.
He wrote: “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.”
So what are they responsible for?
You need to optimize your life for learning.
You need to live and breath [sic] your education.
You need to be *obsessed* [sic] with your education.
Society is investing in you so that you can help solve the many challenges we are going to face in the coming decades, from profound technological challenges to helping people with the age old search for human happiness and meaning.
That is why I am not canceling class tomorrow. Your education is really really important, not just to you, but in a far broader and wider reaching way than I think any of you have yet to fully appreciate.
Society, and one’s education, apparently have nothing to do with issues of decent wages and working conditions and keeping higher education affordable and its institutions accountable. Good to know.
There is something about the very grown-up action of sacrifice for the sake of solidarity that turns some professors into patronizing asses. For Professor Coward also wrote, “All this may sound like speaking in platitudes. However it is a point worth making to all of you because you are so young. One of the nice things about being young is that your thinking can be very clear and your mind not so cluttered up with memories and experiences. This clarity can give you a lot of conviction, but it can also lead you astray because you might not yet appreciate just how complicated the world is.” According to his CV, Coward was born in 1981. That makes him a grizzled thirty-one or thirty-two years of age.
Coward, I’ve found, has plenty comrades in anti-comradeship who are old enough to know better. I’ll never forget the first time I heard the argument that, “even though I support unions I don’t support graduate students unions,” since graduate students were “apprentices,” not “workers.” It was over dinner with an Ivy League professor (not this one, another one) whose writings had taught me a great deal about what union solidarity was and why it mattered in the first place.
Then there’s this letter I was shown, sent by a political science professor at the University of Chicago, answering a public letter from students in his department about why they were working to organize a union. The professor’s response began this way: “First off, let me preface these remarks by saying that when I was in graduate school at Berkeley in the 1990s, I was very active in the graduate student unionization movement. I was shop steward for the political science department for several years and was very active in a three week campus wide teaching strike we held in the fall of 1992. It may also be worth mentioning that I come from a working class family (I was the first and only person in my family to go to college) and I grew up around a lot of issues of collective bargaining. So I’m highly sympathetic to issues of collective action.”