farewell to academe
Source Michael Yates
Date 01/03/05/16:11

Dear friends,

I have rejoined a couple of these lists after a hiatus of several
months. I am about to retire from my job as a college teacher, after 32
long and, of late, nearly unbearable years. I have spoken about this
before, but in my view academe in is a state of paralysis, at least as
far as it being a center of critical thought and action. It is true and
to be highly commended that students on some campuses have begun to
express outrage at the state of their campuses and the state of the
world at large. If only more of their professors joined with them.
Unfortunately most professors, including those supposedly on the left,
sometimes talk a good game but seldom do much else. For every David
Montgomery or Jim Blaut or Angela Davis, there are scores of perpetual
conference goers and vita builders, intent on making names for
themselves and impressing their more orthodox colleagues, while they
oppose their graduate students' attempts to organize and mix and mingle
with the common people only by accident (note that I am not here
speaking of those admirable souls who labor, often heroically, in the
backwaters of academe, themselves badly exploited workers). Meanwhile
the colleges and universities become ever more like businesses,
becoming, as David Noble correctly points out, primary centers of
capital accumulation.

And if there are some students who have begun to see the light (though
as Doug Henwood and Lisa Featherstone have pointed out, they seem to be
in dire need of a theory to guide them. Where are their professors?),
there are tens of thousands more who have not only not seen the light
but are actively opposed to it. Racism, sexism, homophobia, violence of
all kinds, hyper-individualism al are alive and well on our nation's
campuses. Not to mention a kind of almost wilful ignorance that has to
be experienced to be believed. I used to point out to students in some
of my classes the deleterious effects of long hours of labor on a
worker's intelligence. Marx has a good example in Capital, vol. I,
where he quotes a factory inspector, whose interrogation of child mill
workers indicated that they knew virtually nothing. One child said that
a princess was a man, and another did not know that he lived in
England. Herbert Gutman in his book, "Work, Culture, and Society"
quotes a New Jersey inspector to the same effect: One boy thought Europe
was in the moon, while another thought that the word "boy" was a comma.
These days, however, I wonder how much such examples mean. Consider
that I have a student in a seminar on Marx who wrote that the "Communist
Manifesto" is a novel. In my introductory class, a student wrote "The
Unighted States." Another wrote that a good that is not "inferior" (one
for which, other things equal, as income rises, purchases fall) is
"ferior." Still another asked seriously whether it was "demand and
supply" or "supply and demand." In the seminar, after I had explained
Marx's concept of the value of labor power (its value equals the value
of those consumption goods necessary for the worker to continue working
and insure that the worker's children grow up to become workers), I
asked the class what Marx says is the minimum value of labor power. A
student awoke from a dead sleep (this in a class of ten, all sitting
around a seminar table) and blurted out "$5.15!! I have seriously
suggested that our school sell sweatshirts emblazoned with the slogan,
"Proud to be stupid."

After three decades of increasingly disinterested students,
accommodating faculty, and cynical administrators (who engendered the
climate that encourages the first two), I have found it impossible to
continue. I had to wait til I was 55 to be able to access my pension,
but now that I am of age, I can no longer continue to participate in
this charade. What has saved me from complete demoralization is that
beginning in 1980 I began to teach workers outside of the college. And
for the past two years I have been teaching prisoners. I am curious why
more progressive academics do not do this. It would be a way of
practicing what they preach. For example, I periodically teach
economics to union folks at UMass-Amherst. Now this is supposedly a
hotbed of radical economics. Yet I fly in form Pittsburgh to teach the
class. Where is Bowles or Gintis or Wolfe or Resnick or Pollin?
Perhaps the pay is not high enough or they are away on academic business
(the class is taught while most of the regular students are on break).

As I wind down my last term, I feel nothing for my academic career. My
wife and I have decided to leave town the week after the term is
finished and never come back. We are giving away nearly all of our
possessions (I have already given away all of my books and journals,
thrown away my notes and files, and put my various awards and plaques in
the trash where they belong). When we are done, we will have a few
personal belongings, a used car, a computer, and of course, my pension.
This has been the most liberating thing I have ever done. We are moving
to Yellowstone Park for the summer to work in a hotel there, she as a
hostess in the restaurant and me as a front-desk clerk. I haven't been
so excited about a new job and a new life in many years. I will
maintain my connection with Monthly Review magazine, and I may move to
New York to work for MR in the future. And of course we will always be
dedicated to the working class from which we came and whose liberation,
while a long way off, is the prerequisite for the creation of a society
with any pretension at all to freedom and democracy.

Michael Yates

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