Reaching out in time of social crisis —
some notes from an old teacher

February 1, 2005

this page is at http://site.www.umb.edu/faculty/salzman_g/SfHS/2005-02-01.htm

      In 1923 Upton Sinclair wrote, in The Goose-Step: A Study of American Education,

      “. . . Our educational system is not a public service, but an instrument of special privilege; its purpose is not to further the welfare of mankind, but merely to keep America capitalist. To establish this thesis is the purpose of The Goose-Step.

      “And first a few words as to the title. We spent some thirty billions of treasure, and a hundred thousand young lives, to put down the German autocracy; being told, and devoutly believing, that we were thereby banishing from the earth a certain evil thing known as Kultur. It was not merely a physical thing, the drilling of a whole population for the aggrandizement of a military caste; it was a spiritual thing, a regimen of autocratic dogmatism. The best expression of it upon which I have come in my readings is that of Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Prussian philosopher and apostle of Nationalism; I quote two sentences, from a long discourse: “To compel men to a state of right, to put them under the yoke of right by force, is not only the right but the sacred duty of every man who has the knowledge and the power. . . . . He is the master, armed with compulsion and appointed by God.” I ask you to read those sentences over, to bear them in mind as you follow chapter after chapter of this book; see if I am not right in my contention that what we did, when we thought we were banishing the Goose-step from the world, was to bring it to our own land, and put ourselves under its sway – our thinking, and, more dreadful yet, the teaching of our younger generation.” (emphasis added)

      Sinclair, a master American polemicist of the early 20th century, deserves to be more widely read, even — or maybe especially — in these years of unrestrained American barbarism. I recently posted an item from 1974 titled, “Colleges and Universities from Coast to Coast. Who Runs Them? And for What Purpose?”1 It consists in large part of excerpts from Sinclair’s exposé of (primarily) the American system of what’s called “higher” education. What’s compelling about him is the same thing that’s compelling about Joe Bageant’s contemporary writing 2 — it rings true. There’s no bullshit in what he says, and he says it straight. Sinclair is a bit more decorous in his language, but that’s a matter of the era when he wrote.

      Why did I list this item among those having to do with current struggles? Because in past weeks two of the supposedly “great” American universities stirred up brouhahas big enough to even be reported in the corporate media.
1) The University of California at Berkeley consummated its firing of an outstanding biologist because of his opposition to the prostitution of the Berkeley campus to the biotech industry.3
2) “[F]ormer Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers [the current, notoriously vulgar fund-raiser who heads Harvard University] created a firestorm earlier this month for suggesting that women have less innate scientific ability than men.” 4

      In each instance many academics and other friends responded as though these were outrageous actions (which indeed they were) completely foreign to the supposedly normal behavior of “first-rate” universities (which they weren’t). As Sinclair establishes beyond dispute in The Goose-Step, such behavior by Berkeley and Harvard are to be expected. The corporate boards, whether they are called Trustees or Governors, that select these CEO’s of the “higher education” establishment are careful to choose demonstrated and reliable lackeys for capitalism, lackeys who faithfully perform so as to maintain the status quo.

      In many of my previous postings I emphasized the role of the corporate media as a major agent of ideological control. Along and aligned with it, and also very effective, is the system of “higher education.” For a long time I tried to make my life socially useful, aside from “making” money, working within that system, quite a challenge. A major personal success was that the system didn’t beat me into submission. It manages to flatten so many good people. Of course there are others eager to be corrupted in order to “succeed”, the ones the administrators prefer. Although I turned 65 in 1990 I didn’t retire until 1997. Why? Mainly because of the students at UMass-Boston and the satisfaction I got from interacting with them and from developing and offering the radical science course, Science for Humane Survival.5 This last posting was a handout from that course, one of a great number.

      A troubled liberal of The Nation-reading variety since the 1950s, I had gradually evolved towards the political far left, with a good push from the Vietnam War, ending up a principled anarchist of the Kropotkin-Malatesta school. The radical group Science for the People (SftP), which formed during the Vietnam War, strongly influenced my perspective, which naturally shaped the Science for Humane Survival course that I started in 1972. It was a two-semester offering which, with permission from the SftP Steering Committee, I identified as “Science for the People courses.” The courses, which included a series of guest lectures, were notoriously successful, though opposed by reactionary faculty and administrators who tried unsuccessfully to terminate them. Some thousands of students enrolled over the course of the years when I offered them.

      By the time I retired in 1997 the magazine Science for the People, which had been published by the group SftP, had been discontinued and the group itself formally disbanded. In the Spring of 1998 Steve Cavrak, also a long-time member of SftP, and I started a SftP discussion group on the internet. Lately it’s become rather lively. Everyone who is interested, whether a scientist or not, is free to join and participate.6

Notes

1 “Colleges and Universities from Coast to Coast. Who Runs Them? And for What Purpose?” is at http://site.www.umb.edu/faculty/salzman_g/SfHS/1995-01-19.htm.

2 Joe Bageant, whose simultaneously humorous and biting essays, on currently-fucked-up America, are well worth reading. They are at http://www.coldtype.net/joe.html.

3 See The Guardian (UK) article of January 19, 2005, by John Vidal. Titled, “Enemy of the state”, it begins, “Eight years ago, Ignacio Chapela was a rising star of American academe; an assistant professor of microbial ecology at Berkeley university in California, sitting on high-level scientific committees and with the seemingly certain prospect of career advancement and a well-paid job for life.” Article at http://society.guardian.co.uk/societyguardian/story/0,,1392979,00.html.

4 The quote is from the broadcast of Democracy Now, at http://www.democracynow.org/article.pl?sid=05/01/25/1458243. Some other reports: “Summers' Remarks on Women Draw Fire”, Boston Globe, January 17, 2005. The Globe article begins, “The president of Harvard University, Lawrence H. Summers, sparked an uproar at an academic conference Friday [Jan 14] when he said that innate differences between men and women might be one reason fewer women succeed in science and math careers. Summers also questioned how much of a role discrimination plays in the dearth of female professors in science and engineering at elite universities.” The Truthout site has several articles, at http://www.truthout.org/docs_05/012405J.shtml, one of which is from the National Organization for Women (NOW) calling for his resignation from Harvard.

5 Science for Humane Survival. Some items from the course are listed and linked to at http://site.www.umb.edu/faculty/salzman_g/SfHS/index.htm.

6 Posting to the SftP list, unmoderated, is open to all subscribers, at http://list.uvm.edu/archives/science-for-the-people.html.

― G.S., February 1, 2005

All comments and criticisms are welcome.    <george.salzman@umb.edu>

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