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Project for an Activist University < DIALECTICAL MARXISM: The Writings of Bertell Ollman
Project for an Activist University
Letter to Joseph Murphy, former Chancellor of the City University of New York - C.U.N.Y. (January 19, 1985)
Dear Joe,

Really enjoyed the lunch, especially the cake. The conversation, though not as tasty, has really set me thinking.

First, your article on, "The Public Urban University and the Costs of Equality"—one of the best examples of watered down Marxist analysis I've seen in a long time. I mean this as a compliment. You do manage to convey a great deal of the place, function and struggles of public universities in capitalist society. And without the jargon usually associated with such views. This, of course, has its disadvantages as well as its obvious advantages. For example, the degree to which things could be changed for the better (quantity and quality) inside the present system is somewhat vague. Likewise, the political implications of your analysis that go beyond the attack on Reagan and Co. will probably be missed by many readers. These weaknesses—if one agrees with this categorization of them—could have been partly corrected if you had spent more time detailing the ways in which the universities are made to serve the interests of those who control the government and businesses of our society (or, viewed negatively, the social/economic/political limits on what, ideally, you would have the universities do). Granted the university enjoys a certain "relative autonomy" from the state as from the ruling capitalist class itself, similar—if perhaps not as great—to the relative autonomy the state enjoys from the capitalist class. Still what is essential is to plot the university's dependence (both as an institution and as a function) on the state and on the capitalist class. It is only then that its relative autonomy can be accurately gauged and the room for maneuver that it offers best utilized. Also—and this was my main point—it is only then that readers can clearly grasp the limits of what can be accomplished (regarding equality of opportunity, for example) within the existing system, and what exactly needs to be changed should they want to accomplish more. This would also throw the broader political implications of what you are saying into a sharper light.

Now this is what could be done and how I would set about doing it. Whether it should be done, given...well, given all that is given, I really don't know. As it stands, the piece is instructive, full of tantalizing clues as to who the murderer is, inspiring (very), and puts readers on the right path. Maybe that's all that can be done...for the moment.

As to my answer to the larger question, "What Is To Be Done...In Education?" let me begin by re-stating my rationale. The overall aim is to help people understand—critically, and as a continuing process—who is doing what to whom, how and why. All the facts and ideas that seem to be left out here are really folded into it. As I envision it, it is chiefly a question of connecting up much of what is already taught in a way that allows this monumentally important lesson to emerge. Among the key steps that would indicate how far students have gone toward grasping this lesson are—knowing that they live in a "capitalist" society (in general, ours is a society that dares not utter its name, not in popular circles anyway), knowing that they are workers and not "middle class," grasping the bare bones of exploitation, and, finally, realizing that they are involved—through no fault or wish of their own—in a class struggle. I don't include "alienation" on this short list because it has been psychologized to the point that it is politically, if not yet intellectually, useless. The process I'm talking about is long and complex, and, of course, there is much more to be said about it. But I'll stick to my guns as to what marks the biggest quantitative jumps upward (with possibly one exception, that of empowerment, the moment people feel that what they do can have an effect. I tend to think though that this achievement is better placed on another, though related, continuum).

As you make clear in your article, the university, in so far as it helps people develop any critical thinking, is already doing some of what is needed. At lunch, I made a few suggestions of what more you could consider doing. Let me elaborate on them and then add a couple.

  1. Introductory course for freshmen in all two as well as four year colleges: for a starter, let's call it "Freedom, Democracy and Justice." The idea is to teach students something about these subjects, what they mean and how different people understand them, how one goes about finding out what they mean—using books, but also students' actual experiences in their neighborhoods, at work and as citizens—and finally what can be done to protect and develop these "goods." I see this course as a bridge between high school and college, a context in which we can bring out what college expects from them in the way of critical thinking and thinking about broader social questions generally that is more and different than what they are likely to have experienced in high school. It is a way, too, of encouraging students to put these ideas on the "front burner," to continue to think about them, to use them as criteria for judging what is happening to them in the University and in life generally.

    This course may sound like it's just political theory course, but it doesn't have to be. It could be something that virtually all the disciplines feed into. In one way or another, they all deal with or at least touch on things relevant to freedom, democracy and justice. The committee that puts the course together should have representatives from all disciplines; the course should also be group taught by professors from different parts of the university. Ideally, there should be one lecture or film per week plus one or two much smaller discussion sessions.

    The reason I give the course such a theoretical sounding subject is that I'm trying to force the people in each discipline to think in an interdisciplinary manner (ideas have a greater spillover effect than institutions) and to avoid their simply giving students a taste of their normal fare. Left to their own, political scientists, for example, would simply teach students how Congress works. I want them to talk to—and to bring out of students— the meaning and relevance of freedom, democracy and justice in our lives as citizens, starting with what is happening in our neighborhoods, passing through our schools and workplaces, and ending up in Congress and the White House.

    I think such a course could have a terrific impact—on the students, even on the faculty, and certainly on the university as a community with a common educational project. How to sell it? Aside from its obvious educational value, I think the course could win support as an exercise in citizenship, a counter to vocationalism, and as a way of introducing students to the variety of disciplines in the university, giving them a small taste of what they might want to take more of later. I know that getting such an introductory course through the different faculty senates and, possibly, the Board of Trustees would be an enormous job—also politically very costly. But of all my suggestions, I think this is politically the most important.

  2. A University-wide research project. As a mainly working class university, it would be very appropriate to involve the entire university community in a yearlong research project on the changes in work and in the conditions of workers in New York City, with a focus on how all this relates to the university, past, present and especially future. What I am proposing here is a kind of taking stock of what the university is doing (and could be doing) as it relates to the work and related needs of the community it serves. Find a relevant anniversary: "We are now turning a corner, and need to know..." The explicit aim of the project would be to produce a giant report of our findings, but also to develop a better dialogue between people in the university and those in the larger community, workers and employers alike. And, like in all dialogues, learning would go both ways. People in the community would learn that the university and those of us in the university are concerned with their whole lives. And people in the university would learn...well, a lot more than the answers to the questionnaires we pass out. If focused, as I suggest, on workers and work, it would reinforce students' sense of identity in the working class with all that follows potentially from this. The research experience could be organized to emphasize its collective and cooperative features, and this too would prove very rewarding.

    Yes, I'm talking about something everyone in the university, students, faculty and administrators could get involved in in some way. Some people would go out pounding the streets, where their courses allowed for it. The rest could raise similar questions with family, neighbors, friends, and co-workers. I envision a questionnaire with about 10 to 15 questions. Half of these would be the same for everyone in the university, and half would reflect the person's discipline. So chemistry majors, for example, would ask several questions dealing with the problems caused by the use of chemicals at work; while political scientists would ask more directly political questions regarding the passing and enforcing of the laws that are supposed to protect workers; and so on. And everyone would ask questions about how CUNY has helped (or could help) future workers in preparing for their jobs—not just as regards skills but also as regards the relations with co-workers, bosses and the community that await them (leaving space and opportunity, of course, for imagining other kinds of relations). Of course, there will be differences and debates over the questions and how to interpret the answers. So much the better.

    What's involved in getting this project going is setting up a task force with representatives from different groups in the university. Rather than assign tasks to the various departments, their job would be to produce a wind, a hurricane, that would shake the whole university, that would get every group, department, class in the university looking for ways they could get involved. It could be presented as something that will bring the university together (which it will), that will bring the university together with the people of this city, that will be a positive education experience for everyone involved, that will reinvigorate us all in carrying out our common educational project. Of course, each college could have a committee that sifts through and organizes the data collected by people at that college. And there can be university-wide committees and even mini-conferences to deal with special problems and stages in the progress of the study. Look—why should research be an individual and small group activity? Let 150,000 people take to their pencils and wits together about something worthwhile. Put mass scholarship into motion. Let's create the first activist university. Now there's an education worth giving and getting (forgive all these slogans; just looking for the right one). Would serve as a huge example to universities (and high schools?) all over America (the world?).

    Realizing you might have other things to read, I'll make my other suggestions very short.

  3. Institutes: It would be great if you could shore up some of the more progressive work already going on at CUNY with the stability and respectability that becoming an institute provides. In particular, I'm thinking of Ira Shor's work and ideas on critical pedagogy (really impressive) and the Center for Democratic Theory that Michael Brown and others have set up at the Graduate Center. Given our political climate, I would also like very much to see an institute that focused on the relation between religion and social justice.

  4. Conferences: I think all the colleges should be encouraged to have several a year drawing mostly, though not solely, on their own faculty and students. You can see from the above the kind of topics to which I would give priority. Perhaps you can let lower administrators know that they are being judged, at least in part, by how lively, intellectually speaking, their campuses are; and one major criteria for judging this is the number of conferences that are held there. You could also call a conference on one of the major themes listed above and hold parts of it on each of your campuses, involving in this way the greatest possible number of students and faculty.

  5. Football: Have you ever thought of what you miss by not going to the Rose Bowl? O.K. Forget this one, but not the others. I think I may have come to the end of the letter.

Joe—without wanting to scare you—we probably have 15 to 20 good years to go. The system and/or the planet may not have much more. In sum, it's time to push out the boundaries of the possible, to test our respective relative autonomies to see if we can't do a little bit more than everyone has declared is our absolute limit. Well, here are some ways to do a little more. With enough effort, mainly your effort in this case, we might get lucky.

Looking forward to getting your reaction to all this. How about coming to my place some evening with your missus for some French cuisine? I know Paule would much enjoy seeing you again, and we both look forward to meeting your wife. Or we could meet on the Staten Island Ferry, or...Write me and let me know your druthers.


Bertell Ollman

(Unfortunately, Murphy never took up these suggestions. In the right circumstances the project for an "Activist University" is still something that could be done.)