As May 1 quickly approaches, and signs around campus urge us to “Skip Class” and “Learn Something” on the Commons, we are likely to react with some obvious and legitimate questions. It’s easy enough to get the first directive. It’s not like most students at Cornell need a reason to skip class. For many, “I don’t feel like it” is sufficient. But learn something? Learn what? And isn’t that what class is for?
Full disclosure: I have been one of the many students, workers and community members involved in planning the “People’s School” on May Day. I do not write this as shameless self-promotion, but as a minimal insight into the three months of thought behind the event. However, it is crucial to emphasize that I speak for no one but myself. These are my thoughts, motivations, and explanations, and are not necessarily those of any other organizers.
The imperative of “Skip Class; Learn Something” is indeed paradoxical, and its illuminative power lies comfortably within that paradox. What we have generally constructed as learning — not only at this institution, but in the society it represents — is a conscious activity that takes place in certain settings. These settings consist of classrooms, lecture halls, libraries, or anywhere in front of a digital screen. In doing so, we methodically separate the learning spaces in our lives from our lives themselves. It follows that when Cornell students want to learn about social inequality (which is sadly pretty rare), we sign up for a course with a vague, catchy, somewhat meaningless intellectual title like “Seeing, Hearing, Feeling: The Manifestation of Human Struggle in Developed America” so we can “contextualize our analysis of proletariat sensation in the tradition of Groucho Marx” or something to that effect.
It might never occur to us that the best way to learn about social injustice short of living it would be to learn from those experiencing it in their own space on their own terms. By this, I do not mean we should plan a trip to Northern Uganda to “study the natives,” “learn about their culture” and indulge some white savior complexes along the way; I mean that they should go down the Hill to the Ithaca Commons and talk to Ithacans about the world they live in. Of course it’s not as if Ithaca is a slum and the people are all hopeless and starving, although some certainly are. However, it is not an exaggeration to say that the Cornell-Ithaca divide is one of the many emblematic snapshots of American inequality. On May Day, the commemoration of the Haymarket Massacre in Chicago, a day for the intersection of worker, immigrant and student struggles, we will break down the divide. Between learning and studying. Between the observer and the observed. Between the intellectual and physical commons. Between a University we’d like to see and the one that exists. Between them and us.