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(Tenured Radical)

Wednesday, May 05, 2004


It was at least a decade ago, and I was attending a summer-long faculty seminar on postmodernism at Harvard. One night all of the seminar participants attended a performance of John Cage works put on by Harvard undergrad and graduate music and theater students.

The activity on stage that evening was dully predictable. But what I saw off-stage fascinated me.

It was toward the end of the event, and the last shocking assault on my bourgeois sensibilities was just wrapping up on stage (I seem to recall a young woman in a bright red dress shrieking at a broken piano), and I happened to look behind me. I was sitting in the last row of the theater, and on the floor sprawled a young man and a young woman in a tight embrace. They had both been stage technicians, handling the lighting and the curtain and the sound, and now as their work was coming to an end, they were flush with excitement of a very particular kind - a kind I associate with a rare convergence in one's life of intellectual, sexual, and aesthetic intensity.

I envied them. I thought to myself: "I had moments like that when I was eighteen." They were proud of what they had done; they were stirred by the subversive whatever of the Cage performances; they were besotted with each other. It all came together in the way he suddenly broke away from the embrace and looked at her - pride, to the point of arrogance; a fierce confidence in the absolute rightness of their ragged insouciance... Part of me found it immature and stupid, but basically I was happy for them, because I recognized it as a rare pinnacle moment...

A recent news item (4/28) in Lehigh University's student newspaper - "CLASS UNITES TO PROTEST EXAM" - put me in mind of that night. A course called Movements and Legacies of the 1960s, taught by an old lefty, had instructed its students that college was just preparation for a life of corporate vileness. Its students, thinking this over, decided, reasonably enough, not to take the midterm.

'“It was not so much protesting that specific exam or that class,” Clare Burchi, ’06, said. “It was more protesting the whole idea of exams and writing down all that we had learned into a little blue book.”'

During the semester, the professor had mainly talked about what he called the American university's “hidden curriculum,” which a student described as "the notion that students are being trained to be machines to work for the major corporations as well as capitalism.”

Now the professor was in an awkward position. He had done his work too well. He had created truly serious protesters against the university status quo. What to do?

He told all of the boycotting students they'd get zeros on the exam.

That only emboldened them - a chance to suffer for their beliefs. So he relented and told them they could do some dinky makeup assignment instead.

My heart goes out to them. One doesn't want to look too closely at the intellectual content of their moment, but they had their moment, and I wish them well.