Janine Giordano Drake
Last week, I was sitting at a dinner table with some very accomplished scholars from an elite institution, when I found myself reflecting on the challenges of teaching the liberal arts to very underprepared college students. Some of my students cannot write in complete sentences. Some of my students cannot read ten pages of text. Some of my colleagues gave up on challenging reading and writing assignments long ago.
"Do you ever wonder if those kids belong in college?" one scholar broke in. "Do you think maybe some of those folks belong in a vocational school?" I was taken aback."No, not at all," I replied. "I think our democracy depends on the liberal arts education of every single citizen. I reject the notion that only some of us deserve to be knowledge workers in this economy. I think everyone needs to discuss Rousseau--and Locke, the Constitution, and all of US History--in a college classroom. I believe in Plato for Plumbers," I continued, referring to the Atlantic's article from a year ago. The elite, radical scholar offered that courteous smile we extend when we appreciate others' intentions but think they are stupidly optimistic.
Teaching the liberal arts to students with little college prep is definitely my calling, but it is hard. This week, I will teach Rousseau's Social Contract in one class, the Declaration of Independence in another, continue with Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations in my third, Augusto Boal's Theater of the Oppressed in my fourth, and Mary Antin's 1912 memoir on Americanization in a fifth. Like many others who teach first generation college students, I am a teaching generalist with a heavy course load.
But, because I teach poor students, I also have a second mission as a faculty member: getting these students into full-time jobs, or better jobs than they came from. A majority of working class college students struggle, just like those eighteenth and nineteenth century "jacks of all trades and masters of none," to build a skill set that will land them the pay and benefits of the master class. My students fight an uphill battle against a class system that has been defending its "natural" place in Europe and the US for hundreds of years. And while this class system is bigger than any one of them, it is not beyond comprehension.
I see it as my privilege to invite students to historicize problems that they will inevitably confront, as workers, in their lifetimes: the continual subdivision and automation of labor and devaluing of trade skills; the continual quest to use gender and class politics to rationalize "economizing" on good jobs; the labor aristocracy; the problems of clergy forced to side with their patrons; the challenges of building a successful social movement; the weight of "noblesse oblige;" the reality of high court aristocrats within limited Constitutional government, and much more.
Yet, because many of my students have so little preparation for college, and because we happen to be in a poor, post-industrial city in a bright red state in the Wild West--where most of my students are suspicious of "government" and "movements" in all forms--my biggest challenge as a teacher is to contextualize these authors in a way that builds classroom trust, historical empathy, and human interest. I continually steer class discussions away from contemporary political debates and invite students to immerse themselves in the past and understand it on its own terms. Sometimes, I have found, the best way to teach under-prepared college students is to invert the classroom and the class hierarchy that it represents. Often, the best way to teach history is the least directly. For, the most painless way to push students to read carefully, write, and re-write, is to help them forget that they are doing it.
This semester, I am stressing historical immersion. In one class, I am using the Reacting to the Past immersion game, "Rage Against the Machine" to teach the social and economic history of the Industrial Revolution. We will soon break out of the lecture-discussion format of our great books seminar and dedicate four weeks of classes to an in-depth simulation of the industrial revolution. Each student will be assigned a role--blacksmiths, vicars, merchants, weavers, publicans, farmers an Earl, and a newspaper reporter. I will hold back on my critiques of Adam Smith's "laissez faire" and let students get into their roles and meet the challenges of making a living on a meager (and declining) wage. I will invite students to consider Adam Smith's writings within character. When it's all over, I'll ask students if they've confronted proletarianization and wage struggles in their work lives so far. Students will learn from the game--not me--that jacks of all trades are often just as capable as the master craftsmen. It is their class position and lack of wealth that disadvantages the working classes, but sometimes that's all that matters. Again, students won't learn this from me. If they learn it, it will be from one another.
I approach my American Revolution history course in much the same way. We read a number of bottom-up accounts of rebellions of the 1770s alongside a few pieces of top-down history of the Founders, and a bit on the Great Awakenings. I read and reflect along with students, and offer lecture only in the way of historical context. Students tell me they have read more for this class than in any other they've ever had. Yet, they will not be directly tested on their reading. For the midterm, I asked students to tell me what the War was about, and why. They get extra points for bringing early drafts to the Writing Center.
So also in Political Theory--where we never discuss contemporary politics, but where every student has to fully defend Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau to one another.
As I have said, I find it essential to bring "Plato to Plumbers"--the liberal arts to underprepared working class students. Everyone needs the conceptual and analytical tools to understand contemporary social and political debates; a democracy absolutely depends on this.
But, I also think it's essential to bring the Industrial Revolution to "Jacks of All Trades"--the jewels of working class history to the new, post-industrial proletariat. I was disheartened by Gordon Wood's recent reflection that small histories of people with limited historical significance were becoming an obstacle to the mass popularity of US history books. We need to stand together as scholars--whether we teach in the Ivy Leagues or commuter colleges--and defend the rights of everyone to a high quality liberal arts education. Instead of worrying what bigwigs are buying at bookstores, we need to help working class folks get their hands on important American stories, large and small-scale.
For, the most pervasive lie that oppressed the "jack of all trades" was the idea that he could never have the benefits of the master class. In fact, in numerous moments in history, jacks of all trades have transformed class relationships. They built the Chartist movement; they built the New Deal. If we send plumbers only to vocational schools--and in the process, stop writing small-scale social histories of plumbers--we have given up on the whole project of building a robust, participatory democracy. After all, that the surest way to build an aristocracy is to stop educating the artisan class and keep them from getting their hands on history books about people like them.