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“I Wanted Something Productive to Do": Creating Space for Books and Learning at Occupy Wall Street

Education is at the heart of the Occupy Wall Street movement, from the student loan bubble to the library and teach-ins at the center of the park.
 
 
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Once the Arab Spring broke loose, people began asking me why this country was still so quiet.  I would always point out that no one ever expects or predicts such events.  Nothing like this, I would say, happens until it happens, and only then do you try to make sense of it retrospectively.

Sounds smart enough, but here’s the truth of it: whatever I said, I wasn’t expecting you.  After this endless grim decade of war and debacle in America, I had no idea you were coming, not even after Madison.

You took me by surprise.  For all I know, you took yourself by surprise, the first of you who arrived at Zuccotti Park and, inspired by a bunch of Egyptian students, didn’t go home again.  And when the news of you penetrated my world, I didn’t pay much attention.  So I wasn’t among the best and brightest when it came to you.  But one thing’s for sure: you’ve had my attention these last weeks.  I already feel years younger thanks to you (even if my legs don’t).

Decades ago in the Neolithic age we now call “the Sixties,” I was, like you: outraged.  I was out in the streets (and in the library).  I was part of the anti-Vietnam War movement.  I turned in my draft card, joined a group called the Resistance, took part in the radical politics of the moment, researched the war, became a draft counselor, helped organize an anti-war Asian scholars group -- I was at the time preparing to be a China scholar, before being swept away -- began writing about (and against) the war, worked as an “underground” printer (there was nothing underground about us, but it sounded wonderful), and finally became an editor and journalist at an antiwar news service in San Francisco.

In that time of turmoil, I doubt I spent a moment pondering this irony: despite all those years in college and graduate school, the most crucial part of my education -- learning about the nature of American power and how it was wielded -- was largely self-taught in my off-hours.  And I wasn’t alone.  In those days, most of us found ourselves in a frenzy of teaching (each other), reading, writing -- and acting.  That was how I first became an editor (without even knowing what an editor was): simply by having friends shove their essays at me and ask for help.

Those were heady years, as heady, I have no doubt, as this moment is for you.  But that doesn’t mean our moments were the same.  Not by a long shot.  Here’s one major difference: like so many of the young of that distant era, I was surfing the crest of a wave of American wealth and wellbeing.  We never thought about, but also never doubted, that if this moment ended, there would be perfectly normal jobs -- good ones -- awaiting us, should we want them.  It never crossed our minds that we couldn’t land on our feet in America, if we cared to.

In that sense, while we certainly talked about putting everything on the line, we didn’t; in truth, economically speaking, we couldn’t. Although you, the occupiers of Zuccotti Park and other encampments around the country, are a heterogeneous crew, many of you, I know, graduated from college in recent years.

Most of you were ushered off those leafy campuses (or their urban equivalents) with due pomp and ceremony, and plenty of what passes for inspiration.  I’m ready to bet, though, that in those ceremonies no one bothered to mention that you (and your parents) had essentially been conned, snookered out of tens of thousands of dollars on the implicit promise that such an “education” would usher you into a profession or at least a world of decent jobs.

 
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