How to Learn Under Threat

This title suggests that I am about to tell you relevant things for managing to learn despite the threats bearing down on us all, but in fact it is a question.

I’m asking foremost for myself, both as a student (my final year, I think, thank the gods) and as a professor (this fall will bring the fourth group of Freshmen I’ll get to teach). I’ve realized over the last few years that I do not know what I have been building up toward; I cannot envision complacently taking up a faculty position at some college or other and going about my own life as if I were an isolated individual unaffected by the goings-on around me.

In the first place, our world is burning and those of us forced to exist within industrial capitalist societies are culpable for our complacency while the capitalist 1% are directly liable.

Second of all, at any moment any day, I may be shot dead, my body so ravaged by bullets that they’ll need samples of my father’s DNA to determine that the pulpy mass of decomposing material was in fact me—if not in a classroom, then in a supermarket, or as I’m walking down the street. If I and my entire small family happen to be together and are together shot dead, literally pulverized by bullets, whose DNA will they find to identify us?

Third, in the US we are being set alight by an oligarchic class determined to divide us and to maintain that divide: as a historian I know precisely where this leads, even if those orchestrating the rancor do not. It does not take two parties in agreement that they are at war; one group, convinced that they are actively under assault, certain of a truth that is only true if they believe it is true, and determined to defend themselves—that is all that is needed for a war to begin. Violence has already entered the political field, and the GOP has endorsed that violence as “legitimate political discourse.” We are about to go down a Roman path, one hundred years of civil war, or (perhaps better understood) the continuation of the American Civil War, since we have never resolved that conflict.

To what end, then, have I spent so many years working for a PhD? It is now absolutely meaningless. Paper diplomas are flammable. Whatever knowledge and skillsets I’ve accumulated are perishable, as liable to decay as the flesh that houses the neurons that maintain the cognition by which I’ve absorbed whatever fact or developed whatever skill.

So, to what end, then, can I in good faith lead anyone down this meaningless path when everything is being torn apart? What words am I to use to encourage my undergraduates when I and all those with any sense of what’s happening are so thoroughly demoralized?

I know we can be better than we are. I know it. We do not have to live like this. We must immediately demand better of our leaders, and if they will not act with urgency, then they must be removed from their offices and those of us who understand fully what is happening must rush to unseat them. This is not an age issue: Bernie Sanders is rather old, after all.

Anyone who knows what is happening but chooses cynically to sit on the sidelines is failing themselves, their communities, their species and the planet that bore them. We must learn that we cannot learn under threat. We must ourselves give up complaining and take action.

I hope to see all of you, dear readers, soon entering into politics. May we all get along like a room full of progressives and leftists with the collegiality of Republicans at a cocktail party; but however we get on, let us all do what we can now to foreclose what we know is coming if we do nothing other than complain that no one is doing anything.

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