Activism in the Classroom

Teaching what I do--literature and creative writing predominantly--it's impossible to keep politics out of the discussion, especially when teaching contemporary work. Okay, it's not impossible, but I think it would be intellectually dishonest, given the intersections between poetry and identity and political theory. One could conceivably teach a class on poetry without delving into social and political issues, but it would be an extremely limited class, I think.

Despite the accusations of many on the right, that doesn't translate into indoctrination. If we're indoctrinating our students with far-left ideas in college, it's not taking--the accusation against universities as bastions of communism is older than I am, and yet this country is no Sweden. I don't deny my attempt to expose my students to a wide range of voices from long-silenced groups, and to introduce perspectives other than the mainstream, but I only lead my students to those waters--I don't punish those who refuse to sip.

But there's one situation where I feel a little more responsibility, where I feel I have to be a bit more direct, and that's the education funding question. I was first faced with this last semester when our university took a number of body blows from a legislature seemingly out to destroy higher education in Florida. I was teaching classes during a student-organized protest against the possible cancellation of summer school, and my students wanted to know why this was happening. They hadn't connected tax dollars to their education, and many were taken aback when I pointed out that their tuition only covers about half of the actual cost of educating them. They were further shocked to learn that the tax cuts that had passed earlier that year hadn't yet been factored in, so there were going to be more cutbacks.

And those cutbacks will be tiny compared to what will come if the latest round is approved.

The Legislature would be required to replace an estimated $8 billion in annual revenue losses through several options including a 1 percentage point increase in the present 6 percent statewide sales tax....

The penny-per-dollar sales tax increase is expected to bring in from $3.3 billion to $3.9 billion a year. That's more than $4 billion short of the replacement goal....

Tax increases require 67 percent approval at the ballot box, but McKay said his proposal would need only the standard 60 percent. That's because the sales tax increase is optional, not required, he said.
If it sounds like the educational system in Florida is about to get hosed, that's because it is. Even only needing to get 40% of the vote, tax cut opponents are worried, in part because of the sluggish economy. With gas, food and other prices rising, if property owners can carve out a little break for themselves in the short term, they're likely to say "to hell with the long-term consequences."

But most students aren't property owners, which makes them a natural constituency to oppose this measure, and students are becoming politically active in increasing numbers. If activists can find a way to harness that interest--interest pushed in part by the Obama candidacy--and turn it against this tax proposal by pointing out how those tax cuts will unquestionably affect their educations, we might be able to beat that back.

I don't plan to introduce this subject into the classroom, but make no mistake--if they ask me questions, I plan to make my feelings known about it, because it affects all of us.

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