Thoughts on transition: Public education, social justice, and geography

Rachel Brahinskyby Rachel Brahinsky, UC Berkeley

This was originally presented at the commencement ceremony for the Department of Geography, University of California, Berkeley in May 2012. Many thanks to Rachel for letting us publish it here.

I have a few things to talk about today – I’ll start with a short story about me and why I’m here, and then have a few thoughts on the state of public education, and the state of the world. And I’ll tell you the punch line right now: We need to stick together, in a big way.

So, there I was in the backseat of a friend’s car, and we were driving around the Bayview district in San Francisco. I had just started graduate school not long before, and I was watching the city that I had lived in for the prior decade with new eyes. You see, I used to see colors and shapes – pink and blue and green houses, the so-called painted ladies that had wooed me when I first moved there. But this time, where I had seen architectural styles, I now saw capital flows – capital, washing through the landscape, with the force of rushing rapids. Where I had seen people – with their colorful San Francisco sensibilities, all stripes – I now saw migrations and patterns. It may sound a little crazy, but it was the way I had begun to look at things, with newly reconfigured critical-geographic eyes.

When I started graduate school, I was relatively naïve about what I was stepping in to. Like a lot of others graduating today, I stumbled into the discipline, and then embraced it ferociously, sometimes even a little defensively, nevertheless claiming it fully.

It is essential that I mention those others – my friends and colleagues here in the department with whom I’ve shared this experience: colleagues who’ve been advisers as well as friends, professors who’ve shared their humanness as well as their geographic wisdom, the undergrads who consistently blow me away with their brilliance, the fantastic staff who have built this place so beautifully, and my dear friends and family who may finally, now, understand what human geography is.

I don’t want to suggest that my words today are entirely about my own experience. I wrote them myself, sure, but like the rest of graduate school they were the product of a collective process. This is true in spite of the many solitary hours it takes to get through this – and in spite of the fact that in the end we emerge with a title that is individual, and does not reveal all of the people that we worked with, depended on, learned from, and leaned on.

I think it’s a good thing that it’s a collective process – because what we are facing, this historical moment that we’re living in, is incredibly heavy. We are here together at a time and place that is, quite literally, under attack.

It’s interesting to hold commencement in this room, in Wheeler Hall. This place hosted one of the first big visible moments in the ongoing student struggle to keep the UC public. Some of you were here in the fall of 2009 when students barricaded themselves in this building. Their demand, one that we’ve heard many times since, was to keep the university accessible to everyday people – and not to let this gem of a public institution be privatized.

After students seized the building, the university followed with a police response, which ballooned into what I remember as hundreds of police in riot gear – they wore helmets, they carried batons, and they had shiveringly cold looks in their eyes – as if we, the students, were the enemy.

Meanwhile, thousands of students and faculty gathered in the rain, surrounding the building. Quickly the urgency was understood – if we left, the students inside would be arrested and their demands fully unmet. If we stayed, maybe there could be a conversation. And so the crowd stayed, arms linked; some left and returned with trays of grilled cheese and sandwiches, water and coffee. Strangers handed out umbrellas, and wrinkled blue tarps. The crowd swelled and swelled and swelled.

And when the cops started beating students – students who were there to defend this institution – when the cops started beating them, the students and quite a few professors stuck together.

Most of us thought at the time that the police violence had been so extreme that there would be a huge public outcry that would force the administration to negotiate with the protesters as students, not criminals.

Instead we learnt that this was just the beginning of what may yet become a very long standoff between a neoliberalized administration – with the police as its messenger – against students who are out there demanding that everyone have the right to learn, no matter what you look like, no matter where you come from – that you deserve access to all of this richness that surrounds us.

But the problems we face are far bigger than UC Berkeley, or even California – as if that weren’t enough. There is an attack underway in this country on knowledge itself.

Some people are calling it the “know-nothing” project. You remember the know-nothing party from history class, right? Well this new wave isn’t quite the same as its 19th century predecessor – but under the revived call to shrink government, legislators are attacking knowledge, or access to it, at every level. It would be dizzying to go through the litany, but here are a few that stand out for me, this week.

Congress is cutting funding for useless, frivolous research in fields like – wait for it – Political Science. True story. It’s no longer just programs like ethnic studies, black studies, and women’s studies that are under attack. Now it’s just plain old social science. This does indeed make me worry for human geography.

Meanwhile the city of Philadelphia is closing 40 public schools this fall. Shutting them down. In Texas, there was the textbook scandal last year (which continues: see here); in Arizona, there are too many attacks to be named, on ethnic studies, and other things, slicing away at information – and hope.

Meanwhile, Republicans in Washington are trying to cut funding for the long form census, of all things – so we’ll not only know less about the past, we’ll know less about who we are, right now.

And we’ll be burdened for generations … with debt.

Apparently California’s deficit just doubled, as of Friday. And one standard solution to budget problems on this campus, and across the country, has been to offer you more and more in loans. Sounds friendly, right? ‘Here, have a loan!’ That’s great, until you read in the New York Times, as I did last week, that student debt now represents one trillion dollars in this country. One trillion. That’s more than our total outstanding credit card debt.

And it’s going to grow – last week in congress a conversation was blocked on a proposal to keep student loan interest rates from doubling. Know-Nothing legislators blocked the conversation – when what we need are more conversations, not less.

But all is not hopeless – ah, you folks in the front row were waiting for this part.

Just as there are attacks on knowledge, there are people fighting like crazy to keep the word “public” in the center of our consciousness and to show us what that might mean for the future. Some of them are in this very room; millions of them have been in the streets over the last year and a half, demanding a different vision, one that includes all of us, not just the most lucky.

So, you will be under a lot of pressure to take this education and do something with it – to leverage your skills into a job, to take care of your own. I would encourage you to both be optimistic about this, and to refuse it.

What I mean is this: Don’t let the pressures of the society, the ones that tell you to stay home and work hard and keep your head down, and stay afraid of your neighbors, win. Because when those pressures win, we, collectively, die. A civilization needs knowledge; it needs wisdom. A civilization is, by definition, a web of interdependent people. We cannot let the Know-Nothings win.

We are tremendously privileged to be leaving this place with these degrees that people around the world will respect. We fancy ourselves as critical thinkers, but elsewhere we’ll be challenged to simply fit in, to go along to get along.

It’s up to you. Or maybe, it is up to us.

The poet Mary Oliver offers us this challenge, which I’d like to pass on. ‘Tell me’, she says, ‘Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?’

Good luck and thanks.


  1. Clark Akatiff

    A great address. Her love of geography, her concrete description of the struggle, but most of all these words:
    Don’t let the pressures of the society, the ones that tell you to stay home and work hard and keep your head down, and stay afraid of your neighbors, win. Because when those pressures win, we, collectively, die. A civilization needs knowledge; it needs wisdom. A civilization is, by definition, a web of interdependent people. We cannot let the Know-Nothings win.