/Teaching the Vets

Teaching the Vets

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 When I first began to teach, I had many veterans from the war in Vietnam in my classes. Between my first year in 1969 and the revolutionary victory in 1975, tens of thousands of soldiers returned home.  The college in which I taught was in the steel-mill town of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and like most working class cities, Johnstown had more than its share of veterans.

Nearly all of my veterans proved themselves serious students. They were a lot like me—first generation college students, sons of factory workers, and used to wage labor. Some had volunteered for the military and some had been drafted. Most had been rank-and-file soldiers and marines, but one or two had been officers. Quite a few had not done well in school. Almost all saw college as a new lease on life, a place where they could piece their lives back together and maybe grab a piece of the American dream. I enjoyed teaching them, and drinking with them too.

If the veterans were of one mind in making the most of their classes and eventually graduating, and if in this we were on the same page, the same cannot be said about politics. Some veterans were liberal and some conservative. Some were opposed to the war, but most were not, though only a few expressed this openly. I think that most just wanted to forget about it and get on with their lives. Radical veterans were rare, however; I don’t remember anyone who belonged to Vietnam Veterans Against the War. I, on the other hand, was the most radical teacher on campus, although that wasn’t saying much back then.

Most of the veterans didn’t mind that our politics differed and were often at odds. They had that kind of easygoing willingness to tolerate differences that working class people often have, as long as both parties had enough in common. We drank; we shot pool; we played basketball; we argued. Like my dad’s buddies in the factory back home. But sometimes the differences cut too close to the bone, and then things could get tense.

In 1969, during the first great peace moratorium against the war in Vietnam, I canceled classes, much to the consternation of some of the veterans. Some teachers and students organized a small protest, the main features of which were a reading of the names of the dead soldiers and a selection of antiwar poetry. Our event took place in an open little mall area between the two main academic buildings. We were all sitting on benches underneath the flagpole. I remember thinking how outrageous it would be to take down the flag of imperialism and run up the flag of North Vietnam or the National Liberation Front. The professor of Spanish had selected the poems to be read, and he had thoughtfully copied the poems and translations for those in Spanish. He was reading one of the Spanish poems when a group of veterans charged onto the mall and ripped the poems from our hands. They tore them up and left. We sat there stunned, but the Spanish teacher recovered quickly and continued to recite the poems. I don’t remember now what happened afterward. I suppose we  figured that it was just one more indication of how badly polarized the country was. It might have turned out worse. Some of the veterans were quick to fight, but none of them did. Maybe that was a hopeful sign.

Every now and then a Vietnam vet enrolled in the college after a career in the military. Invariably these men were not at all like the young soldiers. From what I have seen, twenty years in the army or marines, with multiple tours in battle zones, doesn’t do much for one’s critical thinking. Military society is authoritarian in the extreme. Soldiers take orders; they are not encouraged to think for themselves. If they are marines, they are trained first and foremost to kill their enemies. Subtlety of thought is not usually on of their strong points. We had a teacher in the Engineering Department who had been a Marine officer. I have to say that a stupider and more regimented person I have seldom met. One of his heroes and mentors was the late congressman John Murtha, another Marine officer, who had done duty in both Korea and Vietnam and had parlayed this service to his nation’s imperial power into a long career as a Washington DC power broker. No one who knew him would ever mistake Murtha for a thoughtful person, much less a force for popular democracy. In 1976, we were trying to form a faculty union. Some pro-union teachers from the university’s flagship campus in Pittsburgh had come out to the boondocks to meet with us. We were sitting in a conference room in the library, when to our surprise, our erstwhile Marine professor came in and joined us. He was wearing an American flag pin on his sports coat lapel, and it wasn’t long before he began to ask some remarkably foolish questions. The one that struck us all dumb was whether it was right to organize a union in our country’s bicentennial year.

For many years, I taught an introductory economics course for non-majors, a class that fulfilled the distribution of studies requirement for science, humanities, education, and engineering students and could be counted toward the social science course requirements for those majoring in a social science other than economics. The class met in a large auditorium, and we packed them in. One semester I had 237 students. Unlike professors in universities, I was a one-man band; no graduate students graded my papers and exams or met the class once a week.

It is hard to teach in an auditorium, and I had to develop some tricks to keep the students interested. One was to sit on a chair on the stage below the seats and talk without notes. I had about fifty lectures committed to memory, and I delivered them as if I were in an intimate room, rising every now and then to make a point or ask a question. The chair on the bare stage seemed to concentrate student attention on me and what I was saying. A second trick was to employ the musical ideas of improvisation and variation to good effect, starting with a theme and then, using something I had recently done or read or seen in a movie or on television, I would riff off the theme or give a variation of it. Then all of a sudden, I would return to the theme.

Since it was difficult to have a teacher-student give and take in an auditorium (it took courage for a student to ask a question or answer one in front of so many people), I broke up the monotony of lectures with several films. My favorite was a three-reel—we had only film projectors and celluloid thirty-five years ago—nine-part animation called The History Book. This film was made by an agency of the Danish government and was meant to be shown to Danish school kids. Given its extraordinarily radical content, this is remarkable. In its nine sections, it tells the story of the beginning and development of capitalism from the point of view of the exploited classes (serfs in feudalism and wage workers in capitalism). The narrator is a rat, reflecting playwright Bertolt Brecht’s view that we needed a “rat’s eye view of history.” The rat enters center stage and says, “Did you ever wonder why there are rich and poor?” As good a question as there is for a course in economics, though one that was never answered or even much discussed in all but one of the thirty or so economics classes I took. Things really get rolling after that: The corruption, venality, and brutality of the feudal nobility, both secular and religious; the rise of a money-grubbing merchant class; the “primitive accumulation of capital,” including the slave trade and the pillage of Africa and the Americas; early capitalism and periodic crises; the rise of monopolies; wars and modern imperialism; and various anti-capitalist and anti-colonial struggles. There are many memorable scenes. Two of my favorites are the rat on battlefields in the First and Second World Wars shouting to the soldiers, most of whom are from the working class, “Don’t kill each other, kill the capitalists,” and a U.S. businessman opening up the skull of an African student brought to the capital of capitalism to be properly acculturated and vomiting a cornucopia of goods into his skull.

The History Book made students uncomfortable. In a review in the New York Times, Vincent Canby dismissed the film as ridiculous propaganda. But it is much more than that. It strikes at the heart of cherished beliefs: the sense of U.S superiority, the notion that our economic system is the best in the world, the feeling that slavery and racism are things of the past and irrelevant for an understanding of the contemporary world. The movie relentlessly attacks these and many other “common sense” ideas so dear to citizens in the world’s rich nations and nowhere more so than in the United States, even to sophisticates like Vincent Canby. What is more, it is unabashedly sympathetic to socialist revolutions, from the Soviet Union’s to Guinea Bissau’s. This sympathy is a bit heavy-handed, but no more so than the incessant and mindless propaganda we get every day in our media and schools. All told, though, Brecht’s rat’s eye view was a bitter pill to swallow—not for all, but certainly for the majority of students.

Most students confined their displeasure with the film to the end-of-term course evaluations and bitching among themselves. But a few were so angry that they stormed out of the room during some particularly outrageous scene, or they gave me a furious look. One particular distraught student was an older man who had recently mustered out of the Marine Corps a sergeant, after twenty years and three tours of duty in Vietnam. He wasn’t part of my original contingent of veterans, and by the time he came along, I was not so sympathetic to those who had tried to carry out Curtis LeMay’s vision of sending (he said “bombing” since he was an Air Force general) Vietnam back to the Stone Age. “Sarge,” as we called him, was not particularly subtle, and he had a bad temper. He never challenged me outright, probably because he was so used to taking orders from his superiors, and he knew that on a campus a professor was his superior. He made it through the course, but afterwards he told me that he wanted to come down the auditorium aisle and strangle me after I showed The History Book. I took this more seriously than I might have if a callow eighteen-year old had said it.

For the most part college was a good experience for the veterans. After a year or two of classes, they began to see the world in a more complex and sophisticated way. For some, their experiences as working class youth, including those in Vietnam, began to make some sense to them. For a few, college helped them exorcize their demons. Sarge was no exception. He started to do better in his courses, and he got a little less rough around the edges. We even had civil conversations. He  joked about the rat movie.

After graduation, Sarge took a job with the local transit company. He was on full military pension, but he was still a relatively young man, too young and too disciplined not to work. His job was covered by a collective bargaining agreement, and he turned out to be a good union man. Some time after he took this job, he called me. He had a grievance against the company, and he wanted my advice. At first, I said to myself, “Well, doesn’t that just figure. We were ideological enemies when he was a student, but now that he has a problem with his boss, who does he come to? The guy who hates the bosses but knows what to do when they put the screws to you.” But then I thought that maybe Sarge’s new experiences, including his education, had changed his outlook. Maybe under different circumstances, I’d have been Sarge and he’d have been me. Or maybe we’d both have been factory workers out on a picket line. I helped him as best I could.

I had many students like Sarge. If they were from the working class or in it, I never gave up on them, no matter how conservative or antagonistic to my world view they were. I took what they believed seriously, but I never shied away from a confrontation. I knew that most of my students would be wage laborers, probably not steel workers or coal miners, but still facing a boss. They needed to be prepared to grasp what this meant and how to deal with it. It was my job to do the preparing. Often enough the student soil was rocky and impervious to understanding. But more often than I probably know, their was just enough soil to support a nascent grasp of the ways of the world that could be nurtured and sustained through experience now seen in light of knowledge.