In response to David Tunno’s Aug. 1 editorial, which suggests that younger generations of Americans have no sense of history and that teachers in secondary and higher education “are feeding these young minds a view biased” toward socialism, I would ask the following question: What does history actually tell us about the deeds of those inclined toward socialism, and what does it tell us about the policies of those who fear-monger against it?
In the interest of full disclosure: I am a product of the Calaveras Unified School District, having graduated from Calaveras High School. I attended the University of California, Berkeley, for my bachelor’s degree, Jawaharlal Nehru University in India for a master’s of art and master’s of philosophy, and Columbia University in New York for my PhD. I have taught at Columbia University, the New School and St. John’s University. I currently teach at the University of Pennsylvania, and next year, I will be teaching at the University of Chicago.
In a way, I would affirm Tunno’s accusation. My experiences at all of these schools – including the best public university in the U.S., the best university in India and three Ivy League universities – has indeed made me a believer in socialist policies. Yet that’s not because professors there “indoctrinated” me or any other student. On the contrary, they simply encouraged me to think critically and taught me how to do so. They gave me the tools with which to understand history, think critically about politics and, if nothing else, recognize and deconstruct pieces of political theater like the Fox News programming that the aforementioned essayist cites as proof of a historically and morally ignorant young electorate.
Now that I am a professor, I pass on the favor: I give students the analytical and discursive tools necessary to understand the rapidly changing world around them. This is what an education in the humanities and social sciences is intended to do – produce thoughtful, contributing members of society. How-ever, the humanities and social sciences have been under attack from conservative groups for decades, with the support of media outlets like Fox News. These groups advocate the abandonment of a liberal education for vocationally oriented job training. The result, one presumes, would be an electorate of workers – both professional and nonprofessional – with no awareness of history, no understanding of politics and thus, no ability to threaten the order of an increasingly plutocratic society.
Still, what really convinced me that Cold War-era antisocialist propaganda was no more than simply that – propaganda – was my experience as a worker in both India and the United States. India, despite being faced with constant resource shortages and coming in at No. 135 on the UN Human Development Index, can provide quality medical care to its citizens at low cost or free of cost. I, myself, have received quality care for free there and have seen even the most destitute treated by some of the best doctors in the country. In contrast, my first year out of college – when I was working two jobs and living paycheck to paycheck in the Bay Area – I couldn’t afford health insurance and skipped seeing the doctor even when I was sick. Could it be that the U.S. has something to learn from this supposedly “backward” country with a socialized health care system?
The essayist appears concerned that young people, particularly those with an education, do not harbor a rabid fear of socialism. We should perhaps recall that many of those who fought for civil rights in the 1960s (Martin Luther King Jr.), who fought for the right to free speech (Mario Savio), who fought for workers’ rights (Cesar Chavez), and who fought for freedom from imperialism (Mahatma Gandhi), were not afraid of socialist policies, but rather embraced the very types of policies now deemed socialist. Prominent American activists, like Woodie Guthrie (author of “This Land is Your Land”) and Pete Seeger, have supported socialist policies and guess what? Norway, the country at the very top of the aforementioned Human Development Index, follows health and education policies that American conservatives regularly call socialist. (There is too little space here to mention all of the American heroes of the 19th- and 20th-century labor movements who were affiliated with socialist organizations.)
What is to be learned from this history lesson? That the rights and social services that we enjoy today, indeed our very standard of living, are the result of movements and the struggles of people who believed in socialist policies (even if not in a socialist society). So if educated millennials are not opposed to socialism, perhaps it’s not because they are confused or indoctrinated. Perhaps it’s because they’ve actually learned something from history, and the disastrous consequences of the Reagan-era dismantling of social programs – including education.
And perhaps those still living in fear of the word socialism are not, in fact, the guardians of history; rather, history has passed them by.
Tyler Williams is a former Calaveras County resident who now teaches South Asian language, literature and history at the University of Pennsylvania.