Put on by the Center for Complexity at RISD
Funded by Infosys
Ursula K. Le Guin, one of my personal saints, (praise she would accept despite her atheism) wrote: It’s as silly for me to write about economics as it would be for most economists to write about the use of enjambment in iambic pentameter. But they don’t live in a library, and I do live in an economy. Their life can be perfectly poetry-free if they like, but my life is controlled by their stuff whether I like it or not.
Likewise, I am not an expert in education, economics, sociology, nor in healthcare, and unlike Le Guin, I am not an expert in literature. Therefore, in a brief essay on the necessities for change I see in the wake of Coronavirus, on why I am thinking about these topics now, and where I think we can go next, the best I can offer are my honest opinions. Some of my opinions are quite tame, yet others are rather radical. But all of them are simply opinions, opinions held out with an open hand, an openness to change, opinions not worth any more or less than the thoughts and ideas of the reader, simply different – and hopefully – very different. As differences arise, so do unique opportunities to grow in patience, understanding, and compassion.
Reflections on Higher Education, Police, and Prisons
Universities promise to encourage and facilitate growth in our society, but I have no confidence that they succeed on the scale at which we operate them. Some calculus students pay $50,000 a year to cheat on worthless quizzes and skip out on class and readings. Yes, the perennially curious students make the experience worthwhile for me as a teacher, but the school cannot take credit for these pupils – who I feel are not curious because of it but despite it. We must consider the major proportion of students that schools leave behind academically in their rigid, examination-and-grade based model, as well as the damage schools do to the environment in waste, energy costs, and university-sponsored travel as we evaluate the cost of colleges.
I do not blame or judge the university students who shirk reading and homework. I simply cannot. I did the same for the first two and a half years of college (although I am certainly caught up on reading now). I went undiagnosed with depression, struggling to navigate a new, large, confusing environment. Handling that on top of studies was nearly impossible, so I make no judgements on students who do not do work, but this is significant in considering the question I am framing here: Why go to college in the United States (when we have libraries)?
In hindsight, the differences between the classes in which I excelled and those where I did not in that difficult window of time, was having an instructor who saw me for who I was, appreciated me both as a person and a student, and pushed my learning beyond the classroom. In a university class with more than twenty students, this is simply not feasible for each student in between reviewing incomprehensible lectures, answering questions, giving quizzes, reviewing quizzes, reviewing homework, and practicing new skills for no other reason than that they will be tested on an exam. (I haven’t taught since December, but even now, I feel my soul slowly draining away into the sewer of collegiate calculus. I am sludge. I am worse: I am the one who silences the bird in Tagore’s “The Parrot’s Training.”) Is this a failure in the design of modern higher education? I think so, or at least, it does not suit me as a teacher trying to make those connections with my pupils, trying to get them to think independently about the problems they care about. Students, what sounds better: cramming for exams that are gladly soon forgotten or being guided and supported in building a curriculum that focuses on solving real problems and doing real service?
In relation to the novel coronavirus, after schools and universities have transitioned, (temporarily or in just part) to online models, I think collegiate scholars will have to critically examine and develop new perspectives on what constitutes a worthwhile education. The relevance of the image and prestige of an institution will presumably carry less weight as all the institutions now look like one and the same: virtual, online and through a computer screen. I hear of friends of relatives, considering transferring into community colleges to save money. Wonderful, but also: let the students finally see tuition as a vehicle for the “hyper-exploitation of the more vulnerable” and organize so that they might use their collective force to demand a fundamental change to the model of higher education! Free public college now! And to those who will say the quality of education follows the trend of its cost, consider this: We have never been taught, only empowered by great, giving spirits to learn for ourselves.
Now, in between quiz giving and quiz grading, I got mixed up in a volunteer group that receives letters from prisoners across the state of Wisconsin requesting books. We fulfill the requests with books donated to us as best we can. Some of the most common types of book requests we get are books about learning trade skills, learning about small business, learning Spanish, graphic novels, fantasy novels, and religious texts.
Prisons similarly promise to facilitate growth, but I am skeptical of this industry also. Not once have I ever read a letter from a prisoner that goes, “The name of this book-donation project came up in my literature class,” (though I know classes exist in Wisconsin prisons) or, “A guard I know well said I might be interested in this-or-that book.” It’s always the support or recommendation of a peer or friend that gets people started on writing to us. (The prisons do sometimes already have small libraries but not large enough to support the variety of interests among the incarcerated population. Some people who write to us say that they will plan to donate their books to the libraries after they finish them.)
I am also glad to see prisons releasing many, (but too few) nonviolent offenders to protect the population from coronavirus. This is forcing the public to confront the question: to what degree is prison necessary? And, of particular relevance following the killing of George Floyd and the international protests of solidarity in the struggle against police brutality, an intimately related question: what role should police play in democratic society?
The tones of courage and hope ring through the videos and stories we see of this global wave of protests, set against the backdrop of the Coronavirus pandemic. Images of people of color, white people, young people all over the world standing together behind signs calling for structural changes to policing and justice for George Floyd, standing together behind cloth masks, sending the message that we can all fight for this together; a message we are all especially attuned to in this moment, in this time that we are practiced at recognizing bravery and strength in each other. But what do meaningful structural change and justice look like?
How did I arrive at these positions? In my life, I have not seen overwhelming evidence that either police or prisons make society safer, so when I started interacting with police-and-prison-abolitionist literature, it was easy to let go of the image I had of police as protectors and prisons as humane, reformatory institutions. The best I can offer in a reflective essay is my honest thinking. The Black Lives Matter website reads, “#DefundThePolice.” Alex Vitale has recently rearticulated this position (which I hold) well in the magazine Yes! in an article titled, “Why Police Reform Is Not Enough.” Although, I will add that Coronavirus is disproportionately affecting poor and Black communities, amplifying and agitating the inequality that Vitale identifies lying at the roots of policing problems. In relation to prisons, The Harvard Gazette gives a good overview of a speech by Angela Davis in an older piece titled “Abolish Prisons, Says Angela Davis” that raises all the fundamental points of prison-abolitionism.
Note this perspective does not translate into a personal judgement on any individual who has chosen to do the job of policing. I hope and believe that many officers approach the job in a real willingness to serve and protect. Well then, what can those people do after the end of policing? They will need a living. There, I do not have immediate answers. None of these opinions, of course, can be end-all-be-all answers, but when people do ask me this question, I like to respond with genuine speculation to show that I take their criticisms and opinions seriously and to inspire them to think further about potential answers themselves, get them thinking concretely about how there may be other models for society.
In regard to former police-workers after the era of policing: I think the time is long past for a giant, clean-energy government jobs-program. Can we create and promise those jobs to former police and veterans? For centuries, we would remember the service and protection done and made for us by the workers who helped convert the world to clean energy.
And what about the end of prisons? Well, according to a 2015 study, it costs around $30,000 a year to hold a prisoner in the United States (Mai and Subramanian). That is more than my salary as a teaching assistant, so I know that with that money, we could decently house, feed, and pay a stipend to former prisoners and have money left to go toward social services and maybe toward schools or toward funding a universal basic income for everyone, toward solutions that address crime at root causes. We could also convert the old prisons into offices for our new, historically unprecedented clean-energy jobs-program. Shrugs suggestively.
So, I have called for an organized exodus from major institutions of higher education, emphasizing self-driven learning, and I have called for the complete collapse of policing and prisons, even amid the coronavirus pandemic, and a universal basic income to boot. Is this agenda radical? And if this is the future we decide on, how do we realize it? Must we make a revolution? I want to address these questions mainly in the next section, adding now but one thought on action to prompt defunding the police and prisons: Angela Davis has suggested uniting the causes of funding urban education and prison-abolition. What effect could local strikes of teachers, in solidarity and together with the Black Lives Matter movement, have on police and prison funding in small towns and cities across the country? The strikes by teachers are largely successful, and the recent example of Minneapolis – in which there has not even been a strike (to my knowledge) – whose city council has just committed to disbanding its entire police department, focusing on creative “community-oriented” safety initiatives like those described in the essay by Steven Fletcher – demonstrates that these demands are now well-within reach. (This line was originally about Los Angeles but, in light of the news from Minneapolis on the seventh of June, begged to be replaced. I also want to add here that it is not my perception that instances of physical altercations and destruction in cities that we hear reports of these days are related to the nonviolent demonstrations through organized political efforts.)
So, on each of these fronts, I have noted progress, and I take that as grounds for optimism and hope, much-needed hope. I especially hope the charges brought against all four officers involved in the killing of George Floyd brings a moment of peace to those hurting and mourning along with the Floyd family – even though the road to justice may still be long ahead – and I hope that the world continues to recognize the importance and courage of these protestors, speaking out truth to power and finding strength amidst tragedy.
Reflections on Health and Revolution
The consequences of the Coronavirus pandemic pushed my depression to a new low. The stress of the news combined with an initial fear of going outside, resulted in a reduction in exercise. I also tend to self-isolate as I worsen, and it is very easy to isolate these days. I let weeks pass barely speaking to or reaching out to friends. I spiraled downward. But now, I have gotten back into therapy (via online video conferencing – “teletherapy”), and I have been on the mend since. I am back to enjoying eating, riding my bike, working, reading (currently the fourth Harry Potter book and Tolstoy’s The Resurrection), and entertaining my utopian fantasies.
During stay-at-home orders, we are all having to adapt to new modalities of life, tools like telemedicine, new ways of thinking about problems and technology and about what matters, and I think this skill of adapting to a new reality, a new way of seeing the world, has helped drive fundamental shifts in public discourse, prompting a readiness for change in dialogue about education, police, prisons, the Black Lives Matter movement, the climate, and healthcare. (In this way, the pandemic reemphasizes the urgency of these conversations.) We are forced to adapt ideologically now after seeing through the promise of unending supply in a growth-based economy. We are treasuring eggs, meats, fresh fruits, and flour when we can get them. We have reflected on the essential role of healthcare workers and celebrated them with hundreds of thousands of acts and expressions of gratitude. We are also not taking our own health for granted, and we are witnessing the necessity of ensuring (and insuring) the care of others – to protect our peers as dignified individuals, as communities, and as workers contributing to our own lives in essential ways.
Now, it seems no difficult task for the imagination to substitute “HIV” in for “COVID-19” and see the benefits of guaranteeing treatment coverage for everyone in either case. As even the Trump administration has moved to mandate coverage for coronavirus treatment, surely this government (or the next) can be moved to do so for other illnesses. Moreover, this reasoning is hardly limited to viral, communicable diseases. Can we now also reimagine the country as it could be if we universally covered treatment for cancers and mental illnesses? The case for universal healthcare has never been so clear and tangible.
So, the question, “Is great change needed?” is clearly answered for me. The question left is: How do we enact this agenda?
The rise of progressive politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib, Bernie Sanders, and Tulsi Gabbard, signals a potential for serious structural change within the current system. Even if proposals like Medicare for All or The Green New Deal cannot pass now, it is a tremendous accomplishment to have them represented in our congress, and therefore, we can expect electing more progressives at local, state, and federal levels will continue to push our dialogue and give us more policy alternatives. So, do I think the brand of revolution promised by these politicians is worth supporting? Very much so.
Honestly, before the news from Minneapolis on the seventh of June 2020 – the news that the city now plans to disband its police department – I had much more written here on the subject of revolution. Tracing a tradition of nonviolent, revolutionary theory and practice from Martin Luther King Jr. to Mahatma Gandhi back to Leo Tolstoy’s writings. Distinguishing it from the tradition of the self-proclaimed Marxist states, throwing in a Hermann Hesse quote or two – speculating about how by decentralizing agriculture and the internet, we might peaceably establish a society embodying the changes called for in this essay and dozens more I have not mentioned but have interest in (like open borders and free movement of people, elementary and secondary education) – but all that is just writing. The real thing is happening right now for us to witness – or even better – to be part of. Let us continue to demonstrate our solidarity and continue watching and supporting the revolution in Minneapolis.
I hope the reader finds that I have kept my promise of inviting and honest self-expression and is otherwise safe and well.
In my reflections, I have steered away from “winning people to my side” via argument and towards empowering readers through examples in my experiences to explore their own hearts and imaginations for answers to the questions posed in the Compass III prompt. Meanwhile, in each case, I have highlighted the potential of specific, locally focused, nonviolent-direct-actions to cause the called-for change that the reader may choose to start or find and support in their community, or for a differently minded reader, I have introduced context and a variety of sources for their continued curiosity.
(Once upon a time a good little appendix lived safely fitted and cuddled-up inside a nice warm body – but then decided one day that it would be better off cut out from its host. And just look what that self-determining, rebellious-little-organ grew to become all on its own!)
For some time, I have been daydreaming about using a new version of the internet, called the “decentralized web,” to provide secure tools to help farmers connect fresh crops directly to local families, help them manage and keep track of products they grow and sell, and establish a federation for trading products with each other when necessary. The goal is to cut out as much processed food as possible, not in a consumerist-organic-hipster way, but in a radical, insurrectionary way.
The farming federation will grow quickly because people will see its environmental benefits. Soon, the federation will control such a proportion of trade that it will have the collective power to bargain with the modern states and declare each of its self-sufficient agricultural regions as independent communes, joined in a transnational syndicate. Because of the called-for increase of attendance in community colleges and radical prison literacy programs, there will be amply many trade workers to build and maintain the dorms, schools, warehouses, and libraries the communes will need. Yes, certain luxury goods will be scarce at first, but as demonstrated during this pandemic, the communards will adapt quickly.
The sticking point was health. Sure, the people will be fit, not having many cars or vehicles, doing mostly laborious jobs, eating organic foods and little meat. Mental illnesses, though occurring with familiar frequency, will be more manageable in a society that does not threaten starvation and homelessness when the people can’t work! The positive public health ramifications of this model may be difficult to forecast. But what is to be done about rare, treatable illnesses requiring medical specialists and uncommon medicines? I was lost on this point until I discovered… telemedicine. Now, I see that the mental healthcare professionals of the communes, being less busy than their counterparts in the old states, following the model of the farming federation, will be able to export services to hospitals and clinics back in capitalist society, via telemedicine, in turn earning credit for specialized medical treatment for the communes.
Undoubtedly, reactionaries from the old states as well as from within the Transnational Syndicate of Independent Communes itself will object to this partnership that violates long-established ideological boundaries (trying to be realistic, here). But the people of the Syndicate, by and large, will recognize the principle that holds them together like glue – that is, the principle of mutual aid – becomes worthless if it is hoarded away like a treasure just for the left. The future is for everyone.
Ben J. Wright—PhD Student, U of Wisconsin-Madison
I think collegiate scholars will have to critically examine and develop new perspectives on what constitutes a worthwhile education.