By the time I arrived at UMass Boston in the fall of 1971, as a newly hired assistant professor of English, I had been out of the U.S. for five years. I had left in 1966 to finish my doctoral studies in London, but then, having burned my draft card at a televised anti-Vietnam rally in Trafalgar Square, I was punished by being drafted.
The physical features of the university made a powerful assertion: we are creating an institution right in the middle of things. What should education be like? What should education be for? Even though the university had been in business for several years before I arrived, in 1971 it was still the case that you felt there were no fixed traditions, no fixed identities, no inherited ways of being, doing, thinking. Each faculty member had chosen to work at a place without reputation or history, devoted to the Boston working class. The young faculty was not that much older than many of the students, especially the Vietnam vets. Many of the young faculty had not taught before; a large group of us openly identified ourselves as “Socialists,” established a formal Socialist Faculty group that had a column in the student paper, met weekly, planned political actions and educational strategies, shared teaching ideas, supported each other’s bids for tenure, etc. etc. So you could say the whole put together amounted to a many-faceted experiment in learning, one of the features of which was that traditional roles were frequently subject to radical shakeup.
It was at one and the same time easier to be the professor in the classroom under those circumstances, especially if you were young—and also more of a moral burden. It was easier because students who came to the college to collect financial aid or money from the G.I. Bill or because you were supposed to get a college degree soon found out it was OK to ask what they really wanted to know. And once these questions started to come the whole educational experience changed, at least in this profound respect: it became, to use a loaded term from that time, “relevant.”
There were two opposed views on the faculty about the general education curriculum. On one side, most of the younger faculty, including me, argued for greater relevance in the required classes. On the other side, faculty argued that working class students deserved the same education as you’d get at Harvard or Columbia (e.g. Great Books), and should not be offered a “watered down” curriculum. As I recall, relevance won the day, but in retrospect it’s clear—or, to my way of thinking—that both sides were right.