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Posts Tagged ‘Leonard Vogt’

By Leonard Vogt

Yesterday I returned to teaching after four years of retirement.  I am teaching two sections of Writing Through Literature and using the excellent anthology Literature and Society (editors Pamela Annas and Robert C. Rosen, both of the Radical Teacher collective) which groups the literary genres of poetry, drama, fiction and non-fiction under such themes as Money and Work, War and Peace, and Varieties of Protest, making it considerably easier to teach literature from a progressive left prospective.

Not having taught this course in well over fifteen years, I am curious if or how the political understanding of my students may or may not have changed over the past decade and a half.  I have one particular memory of my earlier experience teaching this course and using the first edition of this anthology (it is now in the fourth edition).

I was teaching B. Traven’s short story “Assembly Line” which is about a New York businessman who is visiting Mexico and finds a peasant craftsman who can make baskets which have the exact same design both inside and outside the basket.  The New Yorker immediately recognizes the beauty of and the possibilities for making a tremendous profit from such a craft and asks the peasant if he would be willing to make large numbers of the basket which he eventually decides to do for a small profit, although nothing compared to the vastly larger profit the businessman will make reselling the baskets at some crafts fair in New York.  One of the study questions accompanying the story asked what the students felt about the “exploitation” of the Mexican peasant by the New York businessmen.  To my surprise, about half the class did not feel that the arrangement struck between the craftsman and the salesman was “exploitation” because the peasant agrees to the terms.  I was shocked and kept going over the percentage of profit (something like 100 percent) and the difference in business sophistication between the two parties.  Nonetheless, half of my class continued to argue that no “exploitation” can occur if there is agreement.  In exasperation, I asked the class what their majors were. To a person, the students who felt no exploitation occurred in the story were Business majors.  All the other students who agreed that exploitation occurred were Liberal Arts majors.  Draw your own conclusions and share them with me.

When I get to “Assembly Line” this semester and use the same study question again, I wonder if there will be any change in the students’ understanding of “exploitation,” given that these last fifteen years of economic struggles have given the word an even more relevant and pervasive meaning.  I’ll let you know on my next blog.

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My visit to Kent, Ohio for the 40th anniversary of the Kent State killings, when four students were killed (Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandy Scheuer, William Schroeder) and nine injured (with Dean Kahler left paralyzed and in a wheelchair for the last 40 years) was both nostalgic and informative.

Although I was not on campus the day of the killings, I did see the burning of the ROTC building and the shattered bank windows over that weekend in downtown Kent.  I also saw the Ohio National Guard occupy my campus, the FBI invade student dormitories looking for weapons and photograph classrooms to see what appeared on blackboards that May 4 morning which might have incited students to “riot,” the indictment of 24 students and one faculty member, and the exoneration of the Ohio National Guard and its leaders for any guilt in the killings. However, it was the town-gown hostility that mostly affected me. About a month after the killings, six townspeople attacked me, badly beat me, and repeatedly kicked me in the head. I reported this event to the police over the phone, but when I later checked to see what would appear in the local Kent newspaper, I was told, “Townsperson beat up by six hippie-types,” a reversal of truth that made me question every civil rights or anti-war “riot” I had ever read about.

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In the presence of the suffering in Haiti right now, and the United States media’s exploitation of it, this retired community college teacher would not mind two or three class periods back in the classroom.

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