By Noel Ignatiev
I am a political person. I spent decades in workers’ rights and community struggles and the anti-war movement, and in attempting to build small revolutionary organizations. Several years ago I helped start Race Traitor: Journal of the New Abolitionism. I speak widely on political topics, and take part as I can in developing organization and activity.
For ten years I have been employed as an instructor at Harvard University. I started as a section leader in lecture courses. For the last eight years I have conducted, alone and with various partners, a seminar in the history and literature of America, which I designed and have adapted for students at various levels. In addition I have supervised individual study and honors essays in the history and literature of America. In my capacity as a teacher I have interacted with hundreds of students, from first-year to graduate degree candidates in the extension school.
It is my contention that my work as a teacher, however rewarding it has been for me and even ultimately beneficial it may prove for some of my students, is of no political significance whatever, if “political” means “directly related to the struggle over power.” The example of one student, a young woman from a small New England town, brought this point home to me with particular force. One of only two students I have ever written recommendations for without being asked, she showed appreciation for and insight into the great works of U.S. history and literature from Melville and Twain to Du Bois and Ellison. We stayed in touch after the class ended, and when my son was born she gave me a gift of a children’s book about the Underground Railroad, with the following inscription: “Because you will teach your child the same things that you taught me… Thank you for opening my mind…”
A year later I ran into her and she told me she had just been hired as a proctor for the high-school students who attended Harvard in the summer. She reported that many of them had expressed hostility toward people who have sex with members of their own sex and that she had organized “sensitivity” meetings to counter those attitudes. “I am applying what I learned from you,” she said.
Now, however commendable her effort to promote tolerance, it did not represent my teachings. What a pass things have come to, I thought. I preach class war and my most promising student responds with diversity training.
There have been other cases of students translating my teachings into social work. The result cannot be attributed to administrative limitations on what I can teach; I have enjoyed a remarkable degree of academic freedom, which I have used to introduce students to a variety of revolutionary thinkers, among others. Nor can it be blamed on the social composition of my classes; Harvard students, while they tend to come from affluent and privileged strata, have as much heart and are as open to radical ideas as students anywhere. Nor is the lack of political meaning due to my pedagogic methods; I encourage students to draw upon their own experiences in thinking and writing, and to collaborate in their studies; most evaluate my classes favorably.
I explain the lack of political consequence by the weakness of the movement outside the classroom. In other circumstances the student I spoke of above would have been out occupying administration buildings and destroying draft files. But except in rare cases those things are not happening now, and as a result her activism, and that of others like her, takes the form of sensitivity sessions, tutoring “inner-city” children, and “walks for hunger.” The predicament I describe is not restricted to the university, although the ebb in struggle may manifest itself differently in the army or the automobile factory from the way it does on campus. Movement creates consciousness, not the other way around.
Ironically, one of the most instructive expressions of political struggle I witnessed was directed against me. In one class my teaching partner and I had loaded the reading list for several weeks with declarations from prisoners and laborers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. While the students at first took to the material, it became evident that the tone was beginning to wear on them. Finally at the beginning of one class a student stood up and announced, on behalf of all, that they were tired of that material and wanted to read the great works of American literature. “Noel told us,” she said, “that if we wanted power we would have to take it, so that’s what we’re doing.” I bowed to their demand and revised the reading list accordingly. I also expressed the hope that they carry the spirit of rebellion into their other classes. Sad to say, that might have been the most valuable political experience that some of them had in their university career.
For me teaching at a university has been an agreeable way to earn my living: it has provided me with the leisure to read and take part in political activity, and allowed me to establish political connections with a number of students and others. Some of the people I have met through the university have become close collaborators in political work, and my actions and arguments may have influenced them. But, with the possible exception of the participants in the Great Syllabus Rebellion described above, not a single one was politicized as a result of what went on in my classroom. And that is perhaps as it should be: after all, for an office worker, running a computer is not a political act — although refusing to run one might be. Why should it be any different for a teacher, whose function in the capitalist system is about the same as that of a clerk in the welfare department? When my students ask me for advice about careers that will permit them to earn a living while “working for social change,” I always reply that no official agency will ever pay them to overturn the system, and that to seek to do well by doing good is to set themselves up, either to suffer disappointment or forsake their goals.