Teaching the Crisis, March 4, 2010

27 Jul

This text is a model for others to adapt as we consider how to integrate classroom contexts with the emerging social movements addressing budget cuts and privatization in the UC system.

From: Patricia Morton, UCR

In winter quarter 2010, I taught a course on the architectural history of suburbia (c. 1750 to the present). I used the March 4 Day of Action as an opportunity to link the course to the current California budget crisis and its impact on UC. I wanted to help my students link their own interests (i.e. concern about the fee increases) with a broader political and cultural context. During class time, we held a discussion of the links between the current California budget crisis and postwar suburbanization, particularly the “tax payers’ revolt” of the 1970s when suburbanites began refusing to pay taxes for public services, including education. Attendance was optional that day.

We used class time as a forum for discussing postwar suburbanization in California and its political consequences, particularly the drastic defunding of public services after the passage of Proposition 13. Previously in the quarter, we had looked at how Federal policy encouraged suburbanization after World War II, and examined the postwar depopulation of urban areas and increasing economic and racial homogeneity of postwar American suburbs. We discussed Proposition 13 and the 1970s tax payers’ revolt in relation to the suburban ideology of exclusivity and privatization, originating in the early nineteenth century. Over the last two centuries, as suburbanites removed themselves from cities and created homogeneous suburbs, their commitment to a wider “public” has attenuated, replaced by concern for private good. The physical design of contemporary suburbia reinforces the political disconnection of residents by providing little public space and focusing on the private space of the single family house.

I gave the students some historical background on the passage of Proposition 13 and suburbanites’ reluctance to pay taxes that might benefit urban areas and their minority inhabitants. Proposition 13 dramatically decreased the amount of revenue generated from property taxes and it curbed alternative revenue streams by requiring a two-thirds majority to pass new taxes. We talked about the current crisis in context of post-Proposition 13 cycles of chronic budget shortfalls and deadlocked politics. We looked at the consequences for UC (along with all California public services) in sharply higher student fees and lower State funding.

The discussion was wide ranging. We talked about privatization — the transfer of public services to the private sector – and how decreased State funding has forced UC to find alternative private sources, specifically students who have become replacement “investors” in public education. A number of students talked about their own struggles to pay fees and stay in school, but they seemed more interested in the “big picture” than dwelling on their circumstances. We concluded that California has produced a paradigm of suburban culture that reinforces political and social disengagement from the public realm, deters collective commitment to public institutions like UC, and polarizes California politics. Despite these somewhat pessimistic conclusions, we were encouraged by the upsurge in activism on campus and the rise of coalitions among student, labor and community groups.

Patricia Morton is Associate Professor of architectural history at the University of
California, Riverside. In 2000, MIT Press published her book, Hybrid Modernities:
Architecture and Representation at the 1931 International Colonial Exposition in Paris
, which has been translated into Japanese. Her current research includes projects on “bad taste,” popular culture and postmodern architecture and on human geography and French colonial architecture. Recently, she lectured in Portugal on the cosmopolitan style of Tunisian architect Victor Valensi. She is a member of the Free UCR Alliance (a coalition of student, staff and faculty activists) and an organizer of Concerned Faculty of UCR.

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