Thursday, January 28, 2010

Zinn: Obama at One, Student Struggles at State Colleges

This may be Howard's last public writing. -Ed

Obama at One:

Little Surprising in Absence of Progressive Social Movement

By Howard Zinn

January 22, 2010 "The Nation" -- I've been searching hard for a highlight.
The only thing that comes close is some of Obama's rhetoric; I don't see any
kind of a highlight in his actions and policies.

As far as disappointments, I wasn't terribly disappointed because I didn't
expect that much. I expected him to be a traditional Democratic president.
On foreign policy, that's hardly any different from a Republican--as
nationalist, expansionist, imperial and warlike. So in that sense, there's
no expectation and no disappointment. On domestic policy, traditionally
Democratic presidents are more reformist, closer to the labor movement, more
willing to pass legislation on behalf of ordinary people--and that's been
true of Obama. But Democratic reforms have also been limited, cautious.
Obama's no exception. On healthcare, for example, he starts out with a
compromise, and when you start out with a compromise, you end with a
compromise of a compromise, which is where we are now.

I thought that in the area of constitutional rights he would be better than
he has been. That's the greatest disappointment, because Obama went to
Harvard Law School and is presumably dedicated to constitutional rights. But
he becomes president, and he's not making any significant step away from
Bush policies. Sure, he keeps talking about closing Guantánamo, but he still
treats the prisoners there as "suspected terrorists." They have not been
tried and have not been found guilty. So when Obama proposes taking people
out of Guantánamo and putting them into other prisons, he's not advancing
the cause of constitutional rights very far. And then he's gone into court
arguing for preventive detention, and he's continued the policy of sending
suspects to countries where they very well may be tortured.

I think people are dazzled by Obama's rhetoric, and that people ought to
begin to understand that Obama is going to be a mediocre president--which
means, in our time, a dangerous president--unless there is some national
movement to push him in a better direction.


Students Face a Class Struggle at State Colleges

NY Times: January 23, 2010

At 2:29 p.m. on Jan. 12, Juan Macias, 19, a sophomore at San Francisco State
University, sat in a cafe near the engineering firm where he works part time
as an office assistant, staring at a laptop computer screen.

In one minute he would get a crucial opportunity to register for classes for
the spring semester. "This is so nerve-wracking," he said as he waited for
the clock to signal that his assigned registration period had begun.

Hours earlier, scrutinizing the class schedule, he considered about 30
courses - then had to rule all of them out. They were full. The last slot on
the waiting list for a 146-seat introductory physics class he has been
trying to join for a year had disappeared minutes before, taken by another
student with an earlier registration period.

"You're trying to compete with all the other students, when we all want
education," said Mr. Macias, a business major. "It really makes me angry."
His classes - the ones that had an opening - begin on Monday.

Welcome to state-run higher education in California. Mr. Macias is just one
of more than 26,000 students at San Francisco State, and now educational
opportunities cost more and are harder to grasp and even harder to hold onto
than ever before. Mr. Macias's experience of truncated offerings, furloughed
professors and crowded classrooms is typical.

Neither of Mr. Macias's parents went to college; his father is a railroad
conductor. One of his five siblings dropped out of California Polytechnic
State University in San Luis Obispo to go to community college because of
financial constraints.

Terry Hartle, the senior vice president of the American Council on
Education, a trade association representing colleges and universities,
confirmed that higher education in California has become akin to navigating
an obstacle course.

"There are an awful lot of students in California who are having similar
problems," he said. "This is a potential tragedy for individual students."

In 1960, he added, the state created "the gold standard in high-quality,
low-cost public higher education. This year, the California legislature
abandoned the gold standard."

Because of state budget cuts to higher education, San Francisco State is now
offering 3,173 course sections, 12 percent fewer than two years ago. From
the university administration's point of view, that is not as bad as it
might have been: over $1.5 million in federal stimulus money prevented more
draconian cuts.

Among other things, oversubscribed classrooms can force a student like Mr.
Macias, who must be enrolled full time to keep financial aid, to take
courses that might have little to do with his progress toward graduation.

This semester, he is signed up for a biology class, but was unable to get
into the companion laboratory class. His other courses are a workshop on the
"history, aesthetics, mechanics and politics of rap music and hip-hop
culture," a class built around the campus radio station, KSFS, and a class
called "The Origins of Rock," which is supposed to be for upperclassmen.

He is on the waiting list for a humanities class called Style and Expressive
Forms and a physics laboratory class, which he hopes will help him get into
the physics lecture class. They are meant to be taken together.

But taking any class you can get into just to stay enrolled is no recipe for
excelling academically. Last semester his grades suffered. "I'm taking these
classes that I don't care about, getting bad grades in these classes," Mr.
Macias said. "That's affecting my G.P.A., at the same time that I'm fighting
so that I can have grades. It's really contradictory."

And it is not just classes that he has to deal with this semester. He must
also deal with the legal system. He faces misdemeanor trespassing charges as
a result of joining last semester's protests of the budget cuts.

Still, things could be worse. If he were a year younger, he would not be
able to take classes at San Francisco State. This spring, cutbacks have
largely ended the opportunity for community college students to move into
the state university system, which enrolls 433,000 students. Mr. Macias
transferred a year ago from Allan Hancock College, a community college in
Santa Maria.

Also, in response to budget cuts, San Francisco State plans to reduce
enrollment more than 10 percent for the 2010-11 academic year.

"These students are being told the doors to the university are closing,"
said Kenneth Monteiro, dean of the university's College of Ethnic Studies,
where even the student resource center has been shuttered for lack of funds.

This academic year, the university lost $38 million in state support.
Student fees are 32 percent higher. Hundreds of lecturers lost their jobs;
faculty and staff salaries were cut by 10 percent. Furlough days made the
university's schedule a chaotic patchwork of canceled lectures and shortened
office hours.

The cutbacks enraged students. On Dec. 9, Mr. Macias was among the student
activists who occupied the campus's Business Building for 24 hours,
canceling the classes held inside, including one he was taking. With a red
sweater partially obscuring his face, he took to the roof with 11 other
protesters, wielding a megaphone and leading chants.

When police broke up the occupation early the next morning, Mr. Macias, who
had never participated in a protest before he went to San Francisco State,
was arrested. On Jan. 26 he will go to court.

The chaos of trying to get into classes last fall spurred Mr. Macias. After
budget cuts forced class cancellations, he had to take a week off work to
attend 20 classes, as he tried to scrounge up enough units to keep his
full-time status and maintain his financial aid.

In an oceanography class, the professor drew names at random to pick among
the students trying to join the already-full class. Mr. Macias's name did
not come up. His final course load included several that he took to ensure a
full schedule, such as the Music of John Coltrane.

Mr. Macias also felt the cuts in the classroom. In the fall, Don Menn, a
lecturer in the journalism department since 1999, had taken pity on many
students who, like Mr. Macias, were seeking to join his introductory course,
Journalism and Mass Media. He let them all in, teaching 190 in a lecture
hall that seats 148. Some sat on the floor.

But with no budget for a teaching assistant to help with grading, Mr. Menn
had to slash the syllabus, canceling the midterm exam and the 10-page
research paper. While in the past he had frequently given essay tests, this
year all quizzes and the final were multiple choice.

"This is supposed to be a critical-thinking type class," Mr. Menn said, "and
here it was rote learning."

His students noticed the difference. "The classes are being dumbed down a
lot," Mr. Macias said.

Next year, students like Mr. Macias may face a further increase in fees.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's proposed budget for 2010-11 includes a 10
percent fee increase for students at the California State University's 23
campuses. He also proposed restoring $305 million to the state university

Mr. Macias's education has already suffered. "Just worrying about having
enough units to stay in school made me lose focus on my schoolwork," he

No comments:

Post a Comment