By Christopher Balchin
I’m very glad to describe two lessons in economics that I taught to seniors at Norman Thomas High School in Manhattan, as part of the social studies curriculum.
Young people are angry for many reasons, and the economy is certainly one. Nilda Castillo*—a student in the class I’ll speak about—told me bitterly that her family had to move to a rougher neighborhood because their building was being turned into condos and they could no longer afford the rent. And many students came to school extremely late or very tired, because they worked four or five hours after school every day.
Early in the year, Denise Williams would walk in late each day, mutter to herself, and talk back angrily anytime I asked her a question. Fernando Ortiz, who had a reputation for getting into trouble and fighting, one day came to class with his hand injured, saying he’d been so angry that he’d punched a wall. Another time, Denise walked to the back of the room and threatened to hit him. I had to call for security.
I wanted these young people to see that the study of economics was not dull and oppressive, as they had thought, but exciting and really useful to them. I knew they could, by seeing, through the Aesthetic Realism method, that ethics was at the very heart of our subject. And they would see instances of how economics itself, though it has been cruelly misused, is a oneness of reality’s opposites: it stands for a world constructed well, a world they could like.
International Trade: One & Many
The students themselves were evidence for the fact that we live in an ever more connected world. They came from many different places: the Dominican Republic, Mexico, China, Jamaica, Ecuador, Puerto Rico, Poland, as well as New York.
We read from the textbook Economics: Institutions and Analysis, by Gerson Antell and Walter Harris, an illustration of how economically interdependent the world’s nations are. The writers describe the geographic sources of a candy bar. The wrapping paper, they say, “was manufactured from wood pulp produced in Canada.”
I asked for a volunteer to mark the location of Canada on the map of the world. Diangelo Estevez came up and marked it with a piece of sticky tape. The text continues: “The aluminum foil was made of bauxite mined in Jamaica and processed in a U.S. factory.” Jose Miranda and Jade Francis marked Jamaica and the US on the map. We continued to read, and the class’s wonder grew as we marked on the map every place mentioned:
Sugar, the principal ingredient in the candy bar, was produced out of Filipino cane, while the chocolate had its origins in cacao beans that were grown in Ghana. The almonds came from southern Italy. In the candy-making process, many cargo ships brought the ingredients to the United States. One of these ships, built in a Japanese shipyard for a Greek company, sailed under Liberian registry with a mainly Indonesian crew.
The notable thing here, I pointed out, is that elements from so many different parts of the world went into the making and transporting of one item, which we might buy at the corner store. Students were thrilled to see how the opposites of one and many, and near and far, were working together. “That’s beautiful!” Nilda Castillo exclaimed. “All these countries going into one little candy bar!” We discussed how this is true of other objects, including sneakers, jewelry, and a car—in fact, pretty much everything we use.
Then I said, “Our textbook describes the many places involved in the coming to be of that candy bar, but in keeping with the ethics of our subject, how did the cacao beans get into the bar, and the Filipino cane?” This made for a very lively and critical discussion. “What about the people who do the work?!” said Diangelo Estevez, with anger in his voice. He is one of the young persons who work five hours after school each day. Other students commented on the fact that many goods produced today are made in sweatshops by people who are paid appallingly low wages.
I asked, “What emotion should we have about them, these people who come from all these countries, many with languages and cultures different from our own?” There had been suspicion, and in some cases fights, between students of different ethnic groups. “Thankfulness,” said Denise Williams—who had been so angry that on many days she could hardly concentrate. “We should be thankful for what they did.” I was affected to see that both her gratitude and Diangelo’s anger came from a desire to be fair to the people whose work went into producing the goods we depend on. They wanted these people to be seen and treated justly.
It was after this lesson that I noted a change in the atmosphere of the classroom—to one of more thoughtfulness and a desire to learn.
The Fight of Contempt & Respect
The central struggle in the history of economics, I’ve learned from Aesthetic Realism, has been an ethical one: between respect and contempt. And it also goes on in every person. The debate is: Do other people exist for me to know and see fairly; or do they exist for me to use for my own superiority, comfort, and profit? This is the fight that we would see going on intensely as we studied labor unions.
At the beginning of the unit, I saw that most of my students did not have a clear picture of what labor unions are or why they came to be. Our textbook defines a union as “an association of workers seeking to improve wages and working conditions for its members.”
I asked, “Why did people need an association for that? Why didn’t someone just go to the boss and ask for help?” “Because he’d fire you,” said Carlos Reyes. We discussed the fact that many people together have a strength that one alone lacks. And that’s what a labor union is based on. It puts together one and many, opposites we see in the union motto “An injury to one is an injury to all.”
We watched and discussed the powerful 1987 film Matewan, by John Sayles, about the courageous struggle of workers in a small coal-mining town in West Virginia. And through the Aesthetic Realism method, the ethics of this struggle became very clear to my students.
The town Matewan was the real-life beginning point for the Great Coal Wars of the 1920s, when miners—native West Virginians, Italian immigrants, and African Americans—fought to organize a union so they could get a living wage and change their horrible working conditions.
The film opens in the depths of the Stone Mountain coal mine. We learn that many men have died there because, as the widow of a miner tells, the coal company officials said it was too expensive to wash down the walls to prevent fires. “That’s so cold!” one student called out.
Everything in the town is owned by the company, including the miners’ homes, and we see a family being evicted. The attitude of the company owners to the miners is expressed by Joe Kenehan, a union organizer for the United Mine Workers of America:
You ain’t men to that coal company, you’re equipment, like a shovel or a gondola car, or a hunk of wood brace. They’ll use you till you wear out or break down or you’re buried under a slate fall and then they’ll get a new one, and they don’t care what color it is or where it comes from.
I said, “This took place in the 1920s in West Virginia, but is this the same attitude of contempt that makes people cruel in social life today in New York City?” One young woman said, yes, it was like how certain guys treated girls—like they owned them and then could just dump them: “Sometimes it gets me mad how they be playin’”—that is, two-timing. She continued, “But I’m not going to lie, Mr. Balchin. I know I’ve been mean too.” She got everyone’s respect when she said this.
In the film the miners’ pay is decreased, while prices at the company store are raised, and they plan to strike. The owners bring in scabs—replacement workers—and hire thugs from the Baldwin agency to intimidate the miners and if necessary kill any man who dares to strike.
The mine owners also try to set the men against each other: Italians against African Americans, West Virginians against both—and for a while succeed. But, Joe Kenehan, played movingly by Chris Cooper, goes to each group, talks to them straight, and encourages them not to fight each other but to fight for justice together. His words have an effect, and all the men put down their shovels and picks and leave the mine. “From now on,” Kenehan says, “Stone Mountain don’t move one piece of coal unless it’s a union man that moves it!”
This is an instance of many people working together for one ethical purpose—and it thrilled my students. Fernando Ortiz, earlier so dangerously angry, now was very attentive, and was so moved by the way Joe Kenehan uses his strength to fight for good that he shouted out his approval and raised his fist in triumph!
They Learn There Are Two Kinds of Anger
My students loved Kenehan. He is strong, standing up, unarmed, to the guns of the hired company thugs. And he says to the miners:
How come [the bosses] waste more food in one day than a poor worker’s family has on their table in a week?...Whose sweat was it that went into building [their] mansions...? It’s the workers’—that’s who!
I asked, “Is Joe Kenehan’s anger in behalf of justice or selfishness?” The entire class agreed that it was the first. I told them what I’ve learned from Aesthetic Realism: there are two kinds of anger—one in behalf of fairness, and one in behalf of selfishness and contempt. About the second, I asked, “Have you ever been angry and taken it out on someone else?” Many students nodded. And Fernando Ortiz spoke self-critically about how, after getting into trouble with his father, he terrorized his younger brother and made him cry. The class was seeing that this fight between respect and contempt was not only in history, but in them too.
As they saw how unions arose from a beautiful anger and purpose—and from fighting against the contemptuous anger of owners bent on profits for themselves no matter what the cost to human lives—the students were better able to see which kind of anger looked good to them and make choices accordingly for themselves.
Knowledge & Kindness
These young people were passionate as they researched and presented class reports on people and events important in the history of unions, such as Eugene V. Debs, the Triangle Fire, “Big Bill” Haywood, the Homestead Strike, and the woman known as Mother Jones. One comment of hers they liked and quoted was, “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.” Nilda Castillo and Luz Pichardo gave their report last, and everyone waited after the bell to hear them. The entire class did very well on the exam at the end of this unit.
Fernando Ortiz, who had earlier punched the wall, became less angry and more respectful. One day when there was a melee involving two sports teams at the school, he was brought into the dean’s office and put in handcuffs. But no charges were brought against him because the security camera showed he was not throwing punches or instigating the fight, but trying to break it up!
Denise Williams, who had muttered and threatened to fight Fernando, came to class early every day in order to straighten the desks and set up the room, and they became friends. Diangelo Estevez, who early in the year had started every lesson with a complaint, said, “This class inspires me! I feel like I’m getting a whole new perspective on the world.” I can’t think of anything more important.