Here’s a Bertolt Brecht poem that manages to merge the themes of Labor Day and a new semester, which begins tomorrow at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. I like Brecht’s contention that the educational content one receives can’t be separated from the institution that delivers that content, even though we forget they are interlinked.
Public education is, at least in part, a downward distribution system. We take some of society’s resources to provide those in the lower economic strata a chance to rise. As Brecht points out, however, blood was shed to make this possible. First of all, there were the struggles of the Native Americans and of the Irish, the Italians, and the other immigrant groups to achieve equal opportunity in a country that tried to keep them down. It took labor clashes to end child labor and provide these children with free education. It took the Civil War and the civil rights movement to provide schooling for the descendants of slaves.
There are attempts to reverse these gains as two educational tracks are emerging in present-day America, one for the wealthy and one for everyone else. When states decide to cut funding for public education in favor of tax breaks for the top ten percent, then they are reversing the gains that were achieved through those struggles. While I feel proud to teach at a public college that works hard to enroll first generation college students, the education isn’t as accessible as it once was because state aid has dropped steadily. Poorer families are deterred by the immense debt load that looms ahead.
Brecht’s poem reminds us that the goal of education must always be human freedom. The “enemies of all mankind” that he refers to are those who would enshrine privilege and exclude everyone else. “Men like you got hurt,” he reminds students at this school for the sons and daughters of workers and peasants, “that you might sit here.” So “don’t desert but learn to learn, and try to learn for what.”
Because I see a liberal arts education, including a grounding in literature, as the road to wisdom, I want my students to use it to figure out how to transform their society. Their education will be sterile if they just use it as a way to sit on other people. A knowledge of their history, boring as they may find it, is vital if they are to keep their heads.
To the Students of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Faculty
By Bertolt Brecht
So there you sit. And how much blood was shed
That you might sit there. Do such stories bore you?
Well, don’t forget that others sat before you
who later sat on people. Keep your head!
Your science will be valueless, you’ll find,
And learning will be sterile, if inviting
Unless you pledge your intellect to fighting
Against all enemies of all mankind.
Never forget that men like you got hurt
That you might sit here, not the other lot.
And now don’t shut your eyes, and don’t desert
But learn to learn, and try to learn for what.