CUNY, Corona, and Communism

The coronavirus has hit CUNY, where I teach, hard: more than 20 deaths of students, faculty, and staff, and counting. Yet the impact of the virus on CUNY has received almost no press coverage at all.

At the same time, the media continues to focus its higher education coverage, during the coronavirus, where it always has: on elite schools.

The combination of these elements—the unremarked devastation at CUNY, the outsized attention to wealthy colleges and universities—led me to write this piece for The New Yorker online:

It seems likely that no other college or university in the United States has suffered as many deaths as CUNY. Yet, aside from an op-ed by Yarbrough in the Daily News, there has been little coverage of this story. Once known proudly as “the poor man’s Harvard,” CUNY has become a cemetery of uncertain dimensions, its deaths as unremarked as the graves in a potter’s field.

The coronavirus has revealed to many the geography of class in America, showing that where we live and work shapes whether we live or die. Might it offer a similar lesson about where we learn?…

During the Depression, the New York municipal-college system opened two flagship campuses: Brooklyn College and Queens College. These schools built the middle class, took in refugees from Nazi Germany, remade higher education, and transformed American arts and letters. In 1942, Brooklyn College gave Hannah Arendt her first teaching job in the United States; an adjunct, she lectured on the Dreyfus affair, which would figure prominently in “The Origins of Totalitarianism.” In the decades that followed, CUNY built more campuses. Until 1976, it was free to all students; the government footed the bill.

What prompted this public investment in higher education was neither sentimentality about the poor nor a noblesse oblige of good works. It was a vision of culture and social wealth, derived from the activism of the working classes and defended by a member of Britain’s House of Lords. “Why should we not set aside,” John Maynard Keynes wondered in 1942, “fifty million pounds a year for the next twenty years to add in every substantial city of the realm the dignity of an ancient university.” Against those who disavowed such ambitions on the grounds of expense, Keynes said, “Anything we can actually do we can afford.” And “once done, it is there.”

Public spending, for public universities, is a bequest of permanence from one generation to the next. It is a promise to the future that it will enjoy the learning of the present and the literature of the past. It is what we need, more than ever, today. Sending students, professors, and workers back to campus, amid a pandemic, simply because colleges and universities need the cash, is a statement of bankruptcy more profound than any balance sheet could ever tally.

You can read the whole piece here.

Since it came out on Thursday, I’ve learned of three additional deaths at CUNY, all students in their last year at Lehman College: Daniel DeHoyos, Zavier Richburg, and Lenin Portillo. The Lehman College Senate has voted that they all be awarded posthumous degrees. That brings the total number of deaths at CUNY that I know of to 26.

Speaking of the activism of the working classes, I also wrote for The Nation an essay on the communist, which doubles as a review of Vivian Gornick’s classic The Romance of American Communism, which has recently been reissued, and Jodi Dean’s excellent work of political theory, Comrade.

The communist stands at the crossroads of two ideas: one ancient, one modern. The ancient idea is that human beings are political animals. Our disposition is so public, our orientation so outward, we cannot be thought of apart from the polity. Even when we try to hide our vices, as a character in Plato’s Republic notes, we still require the assistance of “secret societies and political clubs.” That’s how present we are to other people and they to us.

The modern idea—that of work—posits a different value. Here Weber may be a better guide than Marx. For the communist, work means fidelity to a task, a stick-to-itiveness that requires clarity of purpose, persistence in the face of opposition or challenge, and a refusal of all distraction. It is more than an instrumental application of bodily power upon the material world or the rational alignment of means and ends (activities so ignoble, Aristotle thought, as to nearly disqualify the laborer from politics). It is a vocation, a revelation of self.

The communist brings to the public life of the ancients the methodism of modern work. In all things be political, says the communist, and in all political things be productive. Anything less is vanity. Like the ancients, the communist looks outward, but her insistence on doing only those actions that yield results is an emanation from within. Effectiveness is a statement of her integrity. The great sin of intellectuals, Lenin observed, is that they “undertake everything under the sun without finishing anything.” That failing is symptomatic of their character—their “slovenliness” and “carelessness,” their inability to remain true to whatever cause or concern they have professed. The communist does better. She gets the job done.

You can read the rest here.

Okay, back to reading Smith and Keynes, and on Smith and Keynes, for an essay I’m working on now. (And still waiting for another essay I’ve done on Weber to come out.) And reading and preparing for my last class (on Nietzsche and Virginia Woolf) this coming week.

Hope everyone is healthy and safe.


  1. Jamie Storm May 9, 2020 at 11:33 am | #

    Thanks from proud mother of CUNY PhD grad!

  2. M.L. McLendon May 9, 2020 at 12:14 pm | #

    Thanks for the New Yorker piece. Something else struck me during the pandemic. When elite schools were forced to go online, the students rebelled en masse. Indeed, law suits abound. A recent survey by an ed-tech company found that fewer than 1 in 10 high school seniors wanted to take an online class in college. Online education, students argue, is of distinctly lower quality than face to face instruction and isn’t worth the tuition. They are, of course, right. Zoom (which was considered the Cadillac version of online education until the pandemic hit), gamified curriculum, short videos, and other forms of edutainment cannot replace a live discussion and the intellectual interaction of a classroom. Students need to converse with faculty and other students. For people who view education as job training, students need to learn how to learn and do so in the mediums utilized by their future employers–reading, speaking, writing, and discussion in meetings. Lawyers cannot prep for cases by watching short videos or have a boss present the material as if it were a graphic novel (yes, someone is pushing this idea).

    For the past fifteen years, however, there has been considerable pressure on my university from politicians, the Gates Foundation, conservatives, and so on to get our students to take online courses. We have known for some time that poorer and weaker students do considerably worse online. Students who have the most to gain from traditional higher education are shoved into less substantive forums in which they are the least prepared to succeed. This hasn’t stopped many of our politicians in California and our own administrators from touting the virtues of online education. While they claim to be data-driven and evidenced-based, they routinely ignore the most damning evidence that online education is a poor fit for our students. In short, what has been billed as the savior of public higher education was immediately and forcefully rejected by students at elite schools. Granted, students at state schools pay much less tuition than those going to Brown. Still, most of my students struggle to get by. They need to work 30-40 hours a week to live and pay for school. I would argue that paying a lower tuition for them is much more of a sacrifice than for most Ivy students (and Stanford, Duke, and so on) who come 1% backgrounds.

    It is, of course, not surprising that poorer students receive far fewer educational resources than the rich. I am, however, disappointed that there is a genuine hesitation to admit that poor kids have been pressured to accept educational “reforms” that have been instantly rejected by elite students in unequivocal terms. I guess there are too many folks out there, liberals included, who would rather cling to the fantasy that online education can provide cheap, quality higher education than invest in the next generation of Americans. (And, unless there are no professors involved, online will always be more expensive: professor + computer software and licensing + salaried tech support > than professor in a classroom already owned and operated by the university that has minimal maintenance and utility costs).

  3. Judith Siegel May 9, 2020 at 2:57 pm | #

    New Yorker piece very important. “My” Brooklyn College was free, and many of us got state Regents Scholarships too (do they still exist?) that more than paid for books. My husband and I took our BC BAs to prestigious PhD programs that led to wonderful professional careers (not to mention very significant upward mobility from our Brooklyn working class family roots). This needs to be possible again, not to mention upgrading the bathroom faucets. Our careers have taken us to very well endowed universities – the comparisons with CUNY are appalling.

  4. Chris Morlock May 9, 2020 at 7:16 pm | #

    The problems of the educated and professional classes. 30% unemployment right now and the onset of the biggest depression in US history. No one has a job. Biggest transfer of wealth in US history (probably world history) just occurred and there is little to nothing written about it. You’d think journalists and educators would concentrate on that for a minute.

    The professional class is complicit.

  5. jonnybutter May 10, 2020 at 9:40 am | #

    I’m so sorry – sad and angry – to hear about the deaths at CUNY and all around NYC, esp in the Bronx. And I’m girding for more in the rest of the country.

    I agree with the CUNY piece’s sentiments (and with Keynes’) very much,’ve become so cynical about the US. It all feels elegiac. It seems that the big cultural goods fostered during the Cold War years were either more or less accidental bi-products of that contest, or just plain accidents – the result of benign neglect in a time of relatively broad prosperity. I don’t think there has ever been a general, *non-instrumental* devotion to learning, or to any kind of intellectual or cultural excellence, in the US. Hostility and suspicion, more like. That’s presumably why institutions are so vulnerable; it can’t be the cost, since public higher education doesn’t really cost that much in the scheme of things.

    ML McLendon’s comment about online teaching is interesting, and I agree with much of it. But I’m not sure what s/he meant about ‘job training’ and also think s/he conflates media with content. Zoom is just a delivery system, not a pedagogy.

    I have taught quite a few online courses, and I had to stop because it was draining and frustrating (and I couldn’t afford to work for $3/hour). The students were never the problem (they were what made the whole thing worth it), but the university and the courses it devised were, to put it nicely, inadequate. To put it not so nicely, they were shitty. A conscientious teacher’s position is impossible in that sort of for-profit, or ostensibly not for profit, world. One had to satisfy the Edu-dorks at the university with quite a bit of busy work and ‘metrics’ bullshit (which mirrored the course designer’s need to convince accreditation boards that online learning is ‘real’ college). But to do right by students required much more after that: a lot of time creating good teaching materials, and most importantly, spending lots of time with each student, mostly in writing.

    I don’t think it has to be so bad as my experience was, though. For one thing, online post secondary education would benefit from more equitable K-12 schooling (why the hell are schools funded locally??). Learning basic writing skills in college is an extra burden for poorer students who already are at a disadvantage in other ways. Asynchronous learning is bound to rely heavily on reading and writing, just as all humanities work does, and that’s not a bad thing.

    The bigger problem is the synchronous part – the discussions. For small, seminar type classes, I think a Zoom-type thing could work. I’m taking a language course now via Zoom with a small group (four students + one teacher) and it actually works well. For more than a few students at a time I’m not so sure, though. But maybe there’s a way. I think we need to face up to tech and learn how to make the most of its tradeoffs. If we don’t, decisions will be made for us by ‘innovators’.

    • jonnybutter September 5, 2020 at 5:35 am | #

      The part about ‘innovators’ is proving to be terribly true.

  6. John MacLean May 10, 2020 at 10:17 am | #

    One of the books I’m getting through now is Pale Rider, by Laura Spinney. It’s about the flu pandemic of 1918. A later chapter, called “Melancholy Muse,” mentions Virginia Woolf. There’s a quotation from “On Being Ill” which gets into the importance of writing about disease, and how surprising it is that it would be overlooked. Apparently, the Romantic tradition saw illness differently.

  7. kaleberg May 15, 2020 at 12:30 pm | #

    My father went to CCNY back in the 1930s. I’m glad to hear that the place is still doing what it was meant to do even in these wretched times.

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