A Stronger Resistance, or a Better Order?

Is it true that students at upper class colleges are mostly taught to criticize the things -- teaching, nursing, policing -- that kids at working class colleges go to school to learn to do? 

February 5, 2018

Where should progressive intellectuals on campuses put their energies – on building a stronger resistance, or on building a better order? I know, I know, the answer is both. But time and attention are limited, so what do you prioritize?

I’ve been thinking about an interesting case study for students that illustrates this tension. Imagine that you are the last out-of-town protestor to leave Ferguson. As you head for the airport or the bus station, you feel a tap on your shoulder. You turn around and see a man dressed in blue. He has something shiny in his hand. It’s a badge, a police chief’s badge, his badge. He puts it in your hand. Now it’s your badge.

“Report at 8:30 tomorrow morning, chief,” he says, and walks away.

How would you lead the police department in Ferguson? Which officers would you fire? If you fire all of them, how will you go about hiring? (What police officer in his or her right mind would want the job?) What meetings will you hold? How will you start those meetings? What will you do when they get tense or out of hand? What will you do when the protestors come back? Plans for crimes that might be committed? For new police training? 

Doesn't every community in American deserve a decent police department, including Ferguson? Isn’t it an intellectually stimulating exercise to consider how one might improve that department by running it, rather than protesting against it?

Does it feel different when you are the person in charge doing the thing – leading the meeting, listening to angry citizens vent at a town hall, making the hiring and firing decisions – rather than the person telling the person in charge how to do the thing?

It occurs to me that there may be a class dimension to the exercise above.

Some people go to college to get straightforward jobs – teacher, nurse, cop. Those students are undoubtedly working through case studies just like the one I describe above.

Students at other colleges take classes that focus largely on telling the teachers, nurses and cops that they are part of oppressive systems.

A professor I know at an elite private university outside of Boston once told me that a liberal arts education at his campus is basically comfortable professors teaching upper-middle class students how to criticize what the working-class kids at Framingham State are learning how to do. The students from his private school write erudite papers that get them into fancy graduate schools. When the pick up their degree, they try to get knowledge worker jobs where they might make a living critiquing the poor saps slogging it out in our oppressive human services systems. If that doesn’t work out, they take knowledge worker jobs in the private sector where they can make those oppressive systems more efficient by introducing technologies that unemploy those Framingham State graduates.

Was my professor friend being too cynical? Generalizing too broadly about both his own elite private institution and also the ethos of Framingham State?

Is it a faster route to a better world if students at colleges up and down the class ladder were doing real-world ‘how do we make the order better rather than the resistance stronger’ case studies? All kinds of bright young people collectively asking, “What would it look like to be the Chief of Police in Ferguson after the last out-of-town protestor leaves?”


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