What Would Thomas Jefferson Say?

The United States is preparing to celebrate its 235th birthday, and the signing of the Declaration of Independence.  Every July 4, American citizens celebrate the casting off of tyranny, removing the yoke that bound us to a distant and unresponsive leader, a ringing refusal to be demeaned or exploited, and an assertion that “all…are created equal…” (…yes, I know I skipped a word…)  Here in Philadelphia, there will be widespread celebration, re-enactments, throngs of tourists, fireworks displays.

Am I the only one who thinks we should be honoring the memory of this revolution with another revolution?

I ask, in part, because I am marking my own anniversary on this weekend as well —  the two-year anniversary of my own homelessness, caused by the tyranny of labor exploitation.

In 2009, on this holiday weekend, I was hauling what I could out to the curb, packing what I could salvage.  I had prepared myself for homelessness: I had a sleeping bag in the back of my old Outback station wagon, a suitcase of toiletries and a few clothes which would allow me to clean up in gas stations, or at a bathroom wherever I found one.  I had mapped out some rest stops where I might safely park and sleep.  I was terrified.  I was humiliated.  I was outraged.  I had worked my whole life.  I had several graduate degrees and 15 years experience as a university educator.  I raised two children.  I was an active, engaged citizen….but apparently my country saw me as nothing more than a throw-away.

Like so many of us, I was hit very hard by the economic meltdown of 2008.  What little savings I had were in accounts that disappeared.   But was I unemployed?  No.  I was teaching full-time, as an adjunct professor.  While the last of my classes ended in May of that year, and I reviewed papers and tests, filed grades, organized my class notes and research, I was also packing boxes and donating much of my belongings, experiencing the complete collapse of my life.  No one at any of the universities where I taught knew what was happening to me.  I concealed it out of shame, and out of an absolute conviction that no one would have cared anyway.

For years, as I taught full-time, usually between two or three universities, I also had to carry other jobs to survive.  I managed an art gallery, did freelance promotion for a small publisher, and wrote blogs and articles for an Apple affiliate in the UK.  Yes, all at the same time.  I worked about 18 hour days, 7 days a week.  And I was barely surviving.  I still couldn’t afford health care, had very little savings, and was frightened all the time about money and survival.

Then, the economy collapsed.  In a few short months, the gallery job disappeared, my UK client shut down his blog because he wasn’t selling enough to survive anymore.  The publishing company split in two, and my work ended.  I was left to try and survive on adjuncting salaries.

As anyone who has tried to do it knows, it is impossible to survive on adjunct salaries.

In a matter of six months, I had fallen behind on all my bills, was in desperate trouble, and realized that I was heading down the dreaded black hole of financial ruin.

I wasn’t alone, of course.  This has been one of the most devastating economic collapses in the country’s history.  Joblessness, depletion of savings, financial ruin.  It is the over-arching experience of far too many Americans now.

But remember:  I was not unemployed!  I was working, carrying more than a full-time academic load.  I should have been able to make it through.  But the reality is that even before the country’s meltdown, university professors were living ruined lives.  Many adjuncts are living in dire poverty, and have been for over a decade.  Many can’t afford medicine or healthcare.  Most can barely cover their most meagre expenses – housing and food — and certainly can’t save for old age.  We are an underclass of citizens, and we have been for far too long.  Now, thanks to continually worsening economic conditions, we are joined by too many of our fellow citizens.

Homelessness continues to grow.  In 2008, the numbers were as high as 3.8 million, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.  More recent numbers are hard to come by, and I suspect that’s because our government would rather not make them public.  Just among university faculty, I know several people who have been homeless for a long time.  This means sleeping in a van, or a car, or with whatever friend might offer a couch for a night.  One adjunct was fired when it became known he was sleeping in his lab.

Unemployment is officially reported at around 9%, but most experts say that it is closer to double that, when you count all the people who have stopped looking for work, and those whose unemployment benefits have expired.  The numbers go higher in younger populations, and in minority populations.

Underemplyment is a huge problem – a subject about which our lawmakers are persistently silent.  Some of the statistics I’ve seen show it spiking as high as 20% of the employed population.  These are people who have accepted lower paying jobs to replace jobs that disappeared in this collapse.  Or, in order to keep a job, they have accepted significant salary and benefit cuts, or a reduction in hours that allows a company to designate them as “part-time”; these are people who not only are earning much less, but who are receiving no benefits, and often have little to no job security.  I’ve seen more and more jobs advertised on job boards as “part-time” specified as 38.9 hours a week.

What has happened to the academic profession is happening across the nation to others.  Jobs are disappearing to “unbundling”, to outsourcing and off-shoring.  Much of what remains has been reduced to these “part-time”, or “contract” jobs, with no legal protection enacted by our government.  The two-tiered system that academia has used,  which has caused the ruin of the professoriate,  is being used in other professions.  Even law firms, now, are using a two-tier model – hiring associates on a partner track, and others who are not, paying them 1/3 of the salary and offering little hope of advancement, giving them no voice in their own career development.  It won’t take long before law firms discover how easy it is to exploit these young attorneys….and the majority of our young law school graduates find themselves on that “casualized” track to nowhere.

American professors, as a group, are a microcosm of the larger economic ruin facing our citizens.  American university faculty knows its profession has been destroyed.  We have watched our universities transformed into edu-factories, run on the principles of corporate greed. And now, it is clear that our plight and our profession are part of a larger pattern that we, as part of a greater labor movement, must reverse.   This is no longer a matter of our own individual or professional survival.  It is a matter of the country’s survival.

Then, of course, there is the matter of tax breaks for corporations and the wealthiest Americans.  The other 98% of us are being taxed, yet find our social supports being cut, including federal and state financial support to our educational system.  We are being taxed while being underpaid.  We are being taxed to support the bail-outs and back room deals made to further ruin our quality of life and that of our children.   Isn’t this taxation without representation?

So, as we approach this holiday weekend, I ask: What would Thomas Jefferson say?  What would he urge us to do?

“An elective despotism was not the government we fought for.” (http://jpetrie.myweb.uga.edu/TJ.html)

Jefferson echoed the philosophy of Locke when he wrote, in the document declared and published on this holiday, that government existed to protect the rights of the people. He wrote that, when a government no longer protected those rights, it was not only the right of the people, but their responsibility to overthrow that government and establish another.

What led the thirteen colonies to their revolution?  Wasn’t it much like the suffering we are experiencing again? Wage tyranny.  Inequality.  Needless human suffering.  Powerful uber-wealthy elites exercising control over the laws and government.  The few robbing the many of their fair share of bounty, denying the people justice.

Jefferson wrote, “When wrongs are pressed because it is believed they will be borne, resistance becomes morality.”  (http://jpetrie.myweb.uga.edu/TJ.html)

The corporate powers which are so clearly running this country have hijacked democracy itself.  Countries around the globe are waking up and pouring into the streets.  Only this week, the Greeks have taken to the city squares refusing the so-called “austerity” measures that are nothing more than extended abuses of those who have already suffered too long.  We have to take to the streets in large numbers as well.  On the birthday of this Declaration of Independence, and the establishment of our country,  we have to acknowledge that we have lost the government which honors and protects all of our inalienable rights equally.

Jefferson wrote, “The two enemies of the people are criminals and government, so let us tie the second down with the chains of the Constitution so the second will not become the legalized version of the first.” (http://jpetrie.myweb.uga.edu/TJ.html)

As you may have guessed, I’ve been reading the letters of Thomas Jefferson, and realizing just how far we’ve strayed from the principles that the founders were trying to set in place, the democracy they were trying to create, nurture and grow.

Of course,  many would say that America was never a country of equality –  that the constitution did not abolish slavery, did not protect the native people of the continent, did not give women equal rights with men.  There has always been an underclass in this country, populated first with indentured servants and slaves, then supplied by a steady stream of immigrants, then of minorities seen as less than human and denied equal access to the great promise of America.  This is why there have been great moments of rupture and uprising before – civil war, large labor movements which against all odds fought for the rights of workers, bloody civil rights struggles that finally brought much-needed (and still incomplete) reform, women’s movements that demanded greater equality and rights under the law.  Uprisings, revolt, citizen rage.   It is an American tradition.  It is the bedrock of growth toward greater equality.

I believe Thomas Jefferson would agree: it is time for another revolution.

A little more than ten years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson wrote to William S. Smith, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time, with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.”(November 13, 1787, quoted in Padover’s Jefferson On Democracy, ed., 1939)

Of course, as a slave owner, Jefferson is considered by many to have been one of the tyrants himself.  Yet, ever the contradiction, he believed that without periodic revolution, democracy could not survive.  He warned Adams and Hamilton against trying to silence or bully the people — if the citizens become sheep, he declared, “we shall become as wolves.”  It is in human nature, he said, and he urged them to guard against it.  The people have to remain actively involved in their democratic process, or they will lose it.  For this government, and this country, to succeed, it must welcome…encourage…the people to take the streets and demand their rights.  Were he living today, wouldn’t he be one of the voices calling for the overthrow of this new corporate tyranny?

I have another question.  What would Thomas Jefferson, who was most proud of founding The University of Virginia, feel about the state of the American university now?  As nearly 1 million university professors are now “contingent” and impoverished, and our universities have been reconfigured on something closer to a factory model, where is the university life Jefferson envisioned?

We have plenty of statistics these days that tell us our universities are failing the students.  The answer, we are told, is to allow a business model to replace the “outdated” model.  We have corporate forces trying to privatize primary and secondary education.  These same forces have been able to buy their way into our universities to influence them from within.  The goals of these corporations have more to do with profit than they have to do with high quality education of our population.

I suggest that Jefferson would be appalled.  He saw ignorance as the enemy of freedom:

“I have indeed two great measures at heart, without which no republic can maintain itself in strength: 1. That of general education, to enable every man to judge for himself what will secure or endanger his freedom. 2. To divide every county into hundreds, of such size that all the children of each will be within reach of a central school in it.” –(Thomas Jefferson to John Tyler, 1810. ME 12:393)

Who better to safeguard the value of an educated populace than the educators?  As a class of citizens equipped and eager to enact what Jefferson so valued, shouldn’t this July 4 mark a call to action?  We have to refuse being treated “as sheep”.  We have to join with other labor-abused, citizen sufferers and overthrow the wolves who have all but entirely devoured us.

“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and will never be.”

If we don’t follow the Jeffersonian model of revolution, we may find that far too many of us will be repeating another Jeffersonian experience — that of having talent, intellect, ability, vision, and courage, but dying bankrupt.

This entry was posted in The Breakdown of the American University System and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to What Would Thomas Jefferson Say?

  1. Hoppingmadjunct says:

    Hear, hear!

  2. anon says:

    I don’t agree with your “solution:” But I agree that exploitation of adjuncts is a serious problem. Thanks for discussing a serious problem instead of averting your gaze.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s