Wednesday, April 20, 2016

I Am Not Religious, But I Am Spiritual and Teach At A Religious Institution...This Is Why I Wonder A Lot of Things

I knew I needed an education to advance in the world - that is why I was the first in my immediately family to go to a four-year University. My father asked, though, "Why would you pay a school that much money to read books for four years? What can an English major allow you to do?"

It was a good question, father to son, and I knew I always  wanted to be a public school teacher. When I finished the four year literature degree I immediately went for a Masters in teaching. It was practical. The Masters in Literature and the Masters in Science that followed (well, that was excessive). The Ph.D. - okay, it's an illness.

I have always had a plan and, and like many first-generation college graduates I went towards a career of service (many others enter social work and nursing...steps into the bourgeois and, as Arthur Doolittle told 'Enry Iggins, an introduction towards middle class morality).

I teach at a University that's tuition is almost 3x's the salary I earned as a first-year teacher. That means, one year of tuition equals the total pay of a career-educator. Hmmm. Interesting. Higher Education costs are insane, yet if one analyzes the economic structures of the nation and sees the great divides that exist, it becomes evident of what higher education is really about. It caters to those who can pay and maintain the status quo, and unlike the Biblical quote with the camel and the needle, higher education widens their hoops so that the most affluent and privileged in society jump through the bureaucracy with ease, while the everyday worker struggles to get by (and to even comprehend the inaneness of knowledge 'capital' in the world).

I've been thinking about the Biblical quote a lot lately because I work for a school whose mission is social justice - one that derives out of the same institutional racism that sold Black bodies to uphold the education of privileged White families in America's past. It is becoming evident to me that social injustice is the foundation of higher education and, even with good intentions, the reality is that  inequities are deep. Any institution's claim about fairness is actually spoken out of the corner of their mouth. At the core of how they operate are the inequities, biases, prejudices, and intentional design  to keep "others" out. They benefit from those who can afford to keep their "ideologies" afloat, even when those ideologies are hypocritical and obvious to most. Is this guilt? I'm unsure.

I learned early in my education that with knowledge comes responsibility. My choices are not from religious training, but from an understanding of what it means to do good when one only has 100 years to live. Because of my education, hard work, and opportunities in the United States I have experienced tremendous affordances a vast majority of the world may never know: I travel, own a house and car, invest in retirement,  frequent libraries, have access to a computer, and I go out to dinner. This, I believe, is a result of playing the game and it has proven that education does pay off. Although I don't make  as much as my professional friends I went to college with, I get by (definitely with a lot of help from my friends). I spend a vast amount of my time, too, in K-12 schools - most of them in districts that are underfunded, highly stressed, and sometimes toxic.

I think this is why I get perplexed by my work in higher education, especially when negotiating the labor of employees: faculty, staff, grounds people, food servers, custodians, etc. When an institution of higher education costs what it does, and administrators posit that the University is facing dire financial realities (while they make salaries double, maybe triple, from the staff that works for them), I grow curiouser and curiouser about the bigger picture. I can't help but wonder where the money goes.

When I first moved to Connecticut I witnessed wealthier families who could afford the high cost of summer camp for young writers send their young people to our programs. By cost, the camps only those who could afford them. That perplexed me and I drastically cut them. In fact, I sliced the fees in half. The next year, I had double the number of applicants. The year after, the numbers tripled. In fact, I now offer full scholarship to 50% of attendees so that more young people, from a wider variety of backgrounds, have an opportunity to grow during the summer months.

Again, I'm not religious and I don't make choices based on any verse that was taught to me. I simply do what I feel is right. That's my free will and I've spent a majority of my life in communities beyond the ivory towers of higher education. I know that was is normal in the tower is FAR from normal elsewhere. Higher education grows wealthier off the backs of workers who serve the privileges that exist there. We can all deny that, but it's true (as the artwork of Fred Wilson shows).

I work as best as I can and appreciate the fortune of having what I have. Still,  I can't help but think about human greed, hypocrisies, inequities, and Western vulgarities that are at the core of the castle from where I work. I think that is why the camel and the eye of the needle is on my mind. In fairy tales, bad behavior gets punished. If a kingdom is the reward, then it is my wishful thinking that the door to the kingdom will be unwelcoming to the selfish, the righteous, and the "powerful" - those who feed their pockets off the hard work of the laboring people.

My thinking solves nothing...I know that. Rather, it only helps me to recenter my frustration that arrives from working in the tower. I've aimed for an intellectual Robin Hood approach, where I set out to take from the haves to bring to the have-nots, but being amongst the haves is hard for me to stomach. I guess I'm looking for ways to take the needle to sew a better world.

And that is why I write. 

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