US & Them
In the American Classroom

All the doubts that I have had about teaching English in the American classrooms might be about to vanish. This is because, courtesy of the New York Times, I have recently received some news from Japan explaining the alienation of Japan's best and brightest - some of whom are members of the Aum Shinrikyo religious sect that engineered the poison-gas attack in the Tokyo subway system. A former politics professor at Tokyo University said: "They should have read more literature, like Shakespeare. Then they could have learnt what human beings are. They lack an understanding of human nature."

But what do those in America whose ideological thinking might be closest to those of Japan's Aum Shinrikyo members think of teachers of English? Not much one should conclude. A serial bomber who has in the past sent letter-bombs to kill university professors confessed in his open letter that the targets of his attack were academics only in the "technical fields". "We would not want anyone to think that we have any desire to hurt professors", the bomber declared with a calculated sense of discrimination, "who study archaeology, history, literature or harmless stuff like that." The earlier enthusiasm generated by the news-item from Japan turns out to be short-lived. What am I to do, dear reader, when the American serial-bomber doesn't regard my work as enough of a threat to even send me a fire cracker in the mail?

I should take offense at the serial bomber's description of my teaching literature as "harmless stuff". For the past several years, I had been assured by the cultural-leaders from the right in this country that those in our profession who read books in relation to concerns about race, class, gender and sexuality were causing great harm to the Western civilization. In fact, the Republican Party's most virulently conservative Presidential-aspirant Pat Buchanan had declared that "culture is the Ho Chi Minh trail of power". Clearly, the letter-bomber doesn't share Buchanan's idea about the importance of culture and the classroom. And that is disappointment. For quite some time, I thought it was certainly subversive when leftist intellectuals taught under the category of literature the oral testimony of an illiterate female labor-organizer in Latin America, or when we mixed the idea of African literature with the movements against imperialism or when such teachers tried to convince the students that for there to be any viable and democratic notion of literature there has to be equal rights to the production and the distribution of literacy. And I was assured by the polemicists on the right, our enemies, that we were doing something dangerous and damaging to their way of life. Now comes this anonymous letter-bomber who has completely disturbed our sense of calmness. He has sown the doubt: Are we really harmless?

Let me now put my doubts in perspective. Unlike the professor from Japan whom I quoted at the beginning of this article, I do think that to reduce the violence and increasing injustice of our global society to a case of Shakespeare-deficiency in our classrooms is only to add insult to the injury. Several Nobel laureates in literature told the American journalist, Ted Koppel that the April 19 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City was partly the result of a society "grown inarticulate and unused to expressing itself with languages". In one sense, the exorbitant or exaggerated value that these writers lend to language is only the flip side of the dismissive contempt with which the serial-bomber would regard language or the responsibility of teaching it. In another sense, however, the Nobel winners' argument leads us to look more closely at the structure of education itself and the society that surrounds it. What is it that I am teaching my students, whether one is teaching English or algebra? Do we let our students feel critically empowered or do we leave them feeling hopeless?

Reiko Hatsumi wrote recently that Japanese students are "taught to absorb knowledge but not to judge or rationalize." Similar analyses I'm sure will appear in print soon to discuss the situation in America. Sometime ago I heard another Noble Prize winner on the television: the well-known conservative economist Milton Friedman was telling an interviewer on "Wall Street Week" that "schooling is the largest socialist institution in the United States. It is larger than the army". This is an absurd fallacy. Friedman, the guru of the Chicago School of economics, should read what Jonathan Kozol has written about schools in this city and other cities in the US. At Chicago's Du Sable High School, one 15-year-old complained that he had spent a whole semester and "they still can't find us a teacher"; a chemistry teacher reported that he uses "popcorn popper as a substitute for a bunsen burner", and he "cuts down plastic bottles to make laboratory dishes".

What is being fostered in the schools and among the schoolchildren of America are what Kozol calls "savage inequalities". The question of whether I teach English in the American classrooms or not cannot be conveniently segregated from the question of where and among whom does one distribute our common resources. Let me explain with an example. A news report few months back brought us the dismal news that more and more funds are being spent on prisons and this means less money for the education system in at least six states in the nation - California, Connecticut, Florida, Massachusetts, Michigan and Minnesota.

While articles are being published in the U.S. about the need to teach Shakespeare in Japan, I sincerely hope the Japanese are also publishing reports in their newspapers about how there is a growing and urgent need in America to shift resources from building prisons to building better schools, from marketing guns globally to making environment safer for children. In this climate of concern over public bombings, one of those articles might even do us the good turn of pointing out the schools in America are time-bombs that are ticking away.
In the meantime, I intend to continue my form of combat in the cultural wars. Next week, I'm going to show my students a documentary film "Lightning Over Braddock" by an American film-maker, Tony Buba. The film is a powerful portrayal of the decline of industrial America in the eighties and the toll it took on working-class people. The film is set in the director's hometown of Braddock, a former center of steel manufacturing in Pennsylvania. It is worth quoting in full the words that the viewer hears when the film begins with a slow pan across the smokeless chimneys of the industries silhouetted in the light of the rapidly setting sun:

"The 1980's ... High technology was the corporate buzzword. High technology meant Carnegie Mellon University, computers, software contracts. To corporate leaders, high tech meant the chance to build new factories in El Salvador, South Korea, the Dominican Republic, anywhere where there's friendly repressive government and the promise of no unions and low wages. Office buildings rose and factories were razed. Towns went bankrupt, water became undrinkable, infant mortality rates among Blacks were higher than in Third World countries. Once proud communities were reduced to playing the State lottery in the hopes of keeping their towns alive. Over 1000 people moved out of the area. Homes were lost, suicides increased. All the mill-towns were hit hard. One of the towns hardest hit was my home-town Braddock."

I'll be showing this film to my class because whatever else they might learn from Shakespeare, as the Japanese professor believes, about human nature, I still want my students to know more about their own communities. This is more than what the mainstream media offers them by way of explanations for what is happening with the flight of capital to zones of easier exploitation. I very much want my students to know the statistics which their own government has prepared and which is a part of Buba's film. "For every 1000 manufacturing jobs lost, the local community loses 1000 service jobs, 17 doctors, 17 eating places, 13 food stores. For every 1000 manufacturing jobs lost, the local community loses 11 gas stations, 6 clothing stores, 5 dentists. For every 1000 manufacturing jobs lost, the local community loses 2 auto accessory stores, 1 jewelry store, 1 sport store, and unknown number of teachers and government workers."

-Amitava Kumar