Flushing Public Education

Here’s an exciting topic for a blog post: bathrooms.  News of the imminent arrival of seventeen shiny new graduate students to the sociology department somehow got lost in the University of California bureaucracy, so for the first five weeks of school, none of us had keys to the departmental bathroom.  As a result, we had to go downstairs to the first floor of Barrow’s Hall, where the classrooms and a public bathroom are located.  That’s the undergraduate bathroom, and let me tell, it’s disgusting.

Presuming that UC Berkeley undergraduate students are not any less hygenic than their peers at Oxford or Princeton, I could only presume that the bathrooms here get cleaned less often.  Sure enough, when I asked around I was told that janitors were hit hard by the last round of budget cuts.  But it’s not the same all around.  My housemate works in the Chemistry Department; he tells me that one group of labs, with private funding from a medical foundation, has daily cleanings of their bathrooms (at the behest of their donors), while the bathrooms for labs relying on public monies are cleaned less frequently.

The state of our facilities is a broader reflection of the pernicious, day-to-day injustices of a system undergoing privatization.  Some of the classes held in our building are so overstuffed that students have to sit in the hall, catching glimpses of the professor through the doorway.  I have graduate friends who have let three, five, ten extra students into the sections they teach—students who desperately need the classes to graduate, but for whom their TAs will not see a single penny added on to their $16,000-a-year stipends (a bloated wage brought to them by a public sector union, of course!).  Not yet convinced that the budget cuts have gutted the UC system?  Try this: my housemate rolls a dice to determine which problem from a given assignment he will grade, since there aren’t enough graduate assistants to actually grade the entire assignment.

All of these things make me pretty angry, even though I—especially now that I have a key to the clean faculty bathroom—am not a victim of any of them.  Given that the wider masses of undergraduates here are, and are facing an 81% increase in tuition over the next four years, I would think that Berkeley students, of all people, would be throwing Molotov cocktails by now.  They aren’t.  In fact, Thursday, the first campus “Day of Action” against austerity—held in the same place where the anti-Vietnam War movement started, on the same liberal campus—was a complete flop.

I can’t help but think that UC Berkeley students are apathetic because they are victims of a divide and conquer strategy.  The irony of public education is that it’s so damn unequal.  The scientists want nothing to do with the humanities, because the former are sitting on big government grants they don’t want to share.  Another chunk of the population knows they shouldn’t complain, because they’re jut lucky not to be at Cal State, where budget cuts are really hurting.  And as for the graduate students, why should we care—our bathroom gets cleaned.

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3 thoughts on “Flushing Public Education

  1. Your ability to build from seemingly small insignificant observations to the major issues shows always impresses me, because I almost never see it coming and it never gets tired.

    1. Thanks Evan, I’m not sure if my grand extrapolations from the mundane to the macro are sociologically justified but hell, I guess that’s why I have a blog where no one is peer reviewing what I’m saying.

      I think you’re among my last five remaining readers, so I’m glad you appreciate it.

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