There are few places where I will walk around without listening to my iPod. As an undergraduate, even a trip down the hall to the bathroom seemed like a waste of time without earbuds. Even at Oxford, surrounded by spectacular gothic architecture and ever-entertaining undergraduates in fancy dress, my head is still usually engrossed in whatever I am listening to.
Now that I’ve reached San Francisco Bay—the birthplace of much of my favorite music—I’ve gone iPod free. Berkeley feels like non-stop sensory overload, in the best possible way, and I don’t want to miss a second. I come out of the sociology building and, in one direction, hear a drum circle, and in the other, see a group of people practicing martial arts. The town of Berkeley is itself overwhelming: it seems absurd that one place can have so many sex shops, street vendors with Bob Marley t-shirts and bongs, and vegan restaurants in such a small area. Ganja, egg-free cinnamon rolls, and anti-nuclear petitions: they are all within reach at all times. Even the lamppost flyers—for everything ranging from conferences for Gay Pacific Islanders to protests against budget cuts—speak to the vibrancy of the place.
Good sociology, I think, should never be too far divorced from the community in which it is practiced, and, fittingly, Berkeley-the-department reflects Berkeley-the-place. The sociology program lacks a clear center-of-gravity, but in a good way: there seems to be someone here studying everything that sociologists study, and studying it with every different method we have available to us. After spending two years in a place where faculty often won’t deign to meet with students who don’t share their interest in one obscure post-structural framework or passion for one particular corner of India, it’s nice to meet with professors who know nothing about what I want to study, and yet are thrilled at the prospect of helping me study it.
When I arrived, I met up with the other prospective students and current grads at a bar, where we sat outside—it’s March, but it’s beer-garden weather—and drank endless pitchers of locally-brewed ale, purchased for us by the department. The next day, we drove into Oakland for a delicious brunch of fresh California fruit and blueberry pancakes, cooked for us by an eminent, tenured faculty member. I had an exhilarating meeting with a potential advisor—who was conviced every idea I had was publisheable—and then left for a long run along the bay (all in the sunshine, of course). By the end of Saturday, I was ready to sign the dotted line and commit to spending the next six years here—on the first full day of a grad school trip that was supposed to last three weeks and take me to four different schools.
What a difference a day makes. Maybe it was simply that it was raining—a reminder that California isn’t, quite, paradise—but on Sunday, the shine had literally and figuratively already worn off. As much as it thrills me to be in a place where people have political interests that go beyond guns and Jesus, a walk around Telegraph Avenue is an object lesson in the failures of the progressive political project in the United States. Here we are in the most liberal Congressional distinct of the country, with more vegan bakeries, burning-man attendees, and Priuses per capita than anyone in the world—and yet with all our wealth and good intentions, we can’t figure out how to house the city’s homeless. I ate lunch at a donation-only Indian restaurant—where patrons shelled out generously to show their commitment to a post-capitalist “gift economy”—yet as we walked out, we strode past a panhandler, averting our eyes and pretending not to hear his request for spare change.
As goes Berkeley the town, so goes Berkeley the university—in the bad as well as the good ways. When I asked faculty members if Berkeley had any downsides, they didn’t mention any gaps in their theoretical coverage or weaknesses in their teaching methods. Instead, they all said, “the money.” Faculty members opined that funding isn’t what it used to be, that the budget cuts have set the university on a downward trajectory, and that they can’t compete with Stanford and Princeton for the top students anymore. The graduate students, too, sounded a little defeated, convinced that the grass is greener and the funding is better across the bay in Palo Alto.
I have to admit, I found this element of Berkeley frustrating, and if I can’t stand it after a day, I wonder if I could take six years of it. Where was the full-throated defense of public education, the pride at being an undeniable world-class yet taxpayer-funded institution? Since when can Berkeley—still ranked 1st in Sociology—“not compete”? When you produce the top candidates in the job markets and win more American Sociological Association prizes then the next four universities combined, can you legitimately claim to be the underdog? If private universities are unbeatable, what is Yale doing in spot 20, behind Penn State?
It’s a cruel irony that here, in a place that, more than anywhere else in the U.S. is seen as the antithesis of American capitalism, we seem to only be able to talk about money. No one can avoid talking about how much better are funding packages from the Ivies are. Yet, rather than lamenting that Harvard has more money to throw at students, why not argue that, as scholars, getting two or three grand more a year should be low on our list of priorities? And why are we, as students who are demographically privileged yet ideologically committed to a non-market future, so obsessed with maximizing our earning power?
Berkeley is alive and well. But it is convinced it is in decline, and resigned to its imagined fate.