As an English teacher, I’m interested in the possibilities for active learning through connecting literature, daily life, and historical change. But I’m a political animal as well as a professor, and these are urgent times. So I was struck by a quote from the late labor historian David Montgomery. In an interview with Radical History Review, he said: “In this country, where the talents needed to run a humane society are all around us, what we need is not a single party but many self-activated centers of popular struggle and a variety of political initiatives. And all those centers of activity need to learn from history.”
Which has me asking myself: Can the classroom be a site of popular struggle and political initiative, or at least a staging ground for these? How can we, students and teachers, learn from history? And what should we be learning?
I regularly teach a course on Working-Class Literature, and it’s taken various forms over the years. My syllabus begins:
This course explores a world of writing that has largely been left out of the literary mainstream — even though this working-class literature is often brilliant, shocking, and rich in hidden experience. The course also offers an opportunity to inquire into a set questions posed by these texts, questions regarding the nature of “work,” the experience of “class,” and the uses of “literature” in our society.
This past spring, I organized the course around a local theme of “Steel, Rust, and Renewal(?)” Along with poetry, fiction, drama, music, and film from Western Pennsylvania, we used the town of Braddock as a case study of cultural representations of working people and historical change.
On the Monongahela River south of Pittsburgh, Braddock has undergone massive economic and cultural changes in the last century. Once known as the home of US Steel’s largest plant and of the first Carnegie library built in the US, Braddock’s population dropped from a high of 20,000 around 1950 to about 2,000 today, 66% African American. The town recently gained new notoriety thanks to a series of Levi’s jeans commercials featuring Braddock and to the efforts of its young mayor, John Fetterman, to revitalize the town through investment in youth programs, arts of various kinds, and alternative businesses including urban farming.
My class studied these changes, including the struggles of successive waves of immigrants, the unionization of the mills, the devastating effects of deindustrialization, and contested attempts at recovery and renewal. Braddock’s transformations have been well documented in Thomas Bell’s novel Out of This Furnace (1941), in the films of Braddock native Tony Buba, in Levi’s-sponsored movies, in the mayor’s “Braddock 15104” website, and in the town’s library, recently dedicated as a National Historical Landmark. We supplemented these sources with field trips and conversation with Braddock residents.
Towards the semester’s end, several students produced final projects that demonstrated how Braddock and its people can be “read” from the vantage point of the university classroom. Their representations take up and repurpose Braddock’s historical record in ways that are by turns limiting and promising.
Ken, for instance, created a website made up mostly of demographic data and stock photographs. He framed these in the language of touristic invitation: “Welcome to Braddock.com, your one stop shop for everything you want to know about the wonderful city of Braddock, PA. Here you will find pages about Braddock’s past, present, and future as well as information about interesting places to visit while in Braddock. Enjoy!” The website is saturated – in defiance of the data presented — in an ideology of progress: “The future may not be certain, but many people feel that with a little hardwork and dedication, Braddock will return to its former glory once more.”
Rebecca celebrates what Mayor Fetterman refers to as this “malignantly beautiful place” in a photo-essay titled, “The Art of Rust: Reviving Braddock.” Taking her cue from the “ruins gallery” on the mayor’s website, she and her friend took pictures of an abandoned church, which they posted on Flickr under the heading “St Cobweb’s.” In her commentary, Rebecca draws on Richard Florida’s notion of the “creative class” to sound a similarly upbeat note for the future: “Braddock is historical and inspiring which attracts the attention of urban explorers. Urban explorers could be considered tourists from the creative class. They document urban decay and appreciate it for its beauty despite its neglect. . . . The recycling of this historic city has already begun.”
Kit, whose mother was born and raised in Braddock, produced a family memoir based on interviews and a visit to the home-site. Her narrative celebrates the town as a cradle of the values on which she believes the American Dream was founded: immigrant stock, stable family, hard work, church, and neighborhood. But Braddock was also the place her mother “couldn’t get away from quick enough: ‘I knew there was more out there, more to the world than our sad, filthy little milltown,’ she says.” Kit’s final paragraph mixes nostalgic longing with earnest advice for the future:
I know what Braddock is now, I know what it looks like and the sad reality of what it has become. I’ve stared at the plot of land where my mom’s duplex once stood, the bricked over backyard with weeds poking through where those three sisters once sat laughing in Polish. . . . I know I’m not alone in having working class roots and ethnic roots in Braddock, Pennsylvania. I only wish I could have known Braddock as my mother would have known it, as my aunt had known it, and my grandparents, and even my great-grand-parents as they arrived straight off the boat from Poland. Braddock, like so many other post-industrialized towns in the US is forced to reinvent, or face the reality of completely disappearing. Braddock must look towards its current working class population to move forward into the future.
Finally, in a sharp piece of media criticism titled “15104 & 501,” Jonathan weighs in on the 2010 Levi’s ad campaign featuring Braddock. “The campaign, “ he writes, “has had both positive and negative effects on Braddock”:
On the positive side, Braddock has benefitted from Levi’s pledge to refurbish their community center [and] support the urban farming project. On the negative side of things, Braddock, as the object of a fashion advertisement, is becoming fetishized as a place for “pioneers.” Although the recent Levi’s campaign has undoubtedly increased the town’s visibility, it has also contributed to a fetishized (and perhaps false) representation of the suffering town as a “new frontier” for the 21st century.”
Jonathan is concerned with how “rust became fashionable,” and — since fashion’s vogues are notoriously brief — what will happen “when that faded image itself fades from public view”? In contrast to fashion, he proposes “community” as the engine of reinvention: “I think community is what a lot of people in the 21st century are looking to recreate. Braddock’s revitalization will be seen as a rebirth of community – not of business per se. Community will be achieved in Braddock with the hard-work and long-term dedication of its residents.”
Because these were end-of-term projects, I didn’t have an opportunity to bring the questions they pose back to that particular class of students, including questions about what is to be done. I’d like to have discussed the sufficiency of faith in “hard word and dedication,” since it was not a lack of these that led to the town’s demise. Where do we locate agency in this situation? Whose responsibility is it to repair and restore: residents, urban explorers, government?
What I mainly take from reviewing their work is a reminder that “the talents needed to run a humane society” are gathered, right there, in our classrooms. Students are resourceful and hopeful. They need to be, of course: they’ve got lives to make and careers to build in a world which the powers that be in my generation have messed up for them, a world of which Braddock is just one representative symbol.
While some students want to get as far away from Braddock’s contamination of their dreams as possible, many imagine getting in there and helping to “save” the town. That they don’t know to do that in relationship with the forces and people – many of whom don’t want to be “recycled”– already at work there is hardly surprising. But they have ideas and they can envision alternatives to what they see around them. They seem willing not only to learn from history, but also, some of them, to make it. And that’s something for a teacher to build on at the start of a new school year.