Monday, June 23, 2014
An Open Letter To The University of Pennsylvania
Dear Most Honored Faculty of the University of Pennsylvania,
My name is Larry Swetman. I am an artist, writer, and revolutionary who is interested in attending your school for a degree and certificate in secondary education, but have reached somewhat of a stumbling block. I am writing this letter to you in the hopes that I can make three things clear: 1) that the very education that is the backbone of an ivy league pedigree cannot be based on tally marks of a transcript, 2) that upholding this educational standard should have more to do with wisdom than rules, and 3) that I am more than qualified and would make a welcome addition to your program.
Before I begin my thesis, however, I think it may be best for me to give you a brief background of who I am and how I came to write you this letter. I will be brief for I am sure that you all have much to do, but I will continue in the hopes that your desire to change the world is as symptomatic as mine. (For why else would we all endeavor to teach?)
I grew up very poor, the son of a single mother in Atlanta, GA. I will spare you the shades of the story, but suffice it to say it was a long hard road to reach any sort of educational plateau; it's hard to help your kid with his homework when you both are standing in a breadline. However, fortune favors the tenacious and I was given the chance to go to College.
I decided to go to a Christian Liberal Arts College because I was given a new life when I entered the Church. The life I lived prior to becoming a Christian was wrought with environments saturated with the anger that only flows from desperation. When I entered the Church, though, I heard stories of love and community and thought to myself, "Yeah, this is the way out of hell." Consequently, I undertook a journey to obtain a Bachelor of Arts in Biblical and Theological Studies. Again, I will spare you the minutia of my collegiate story, but suffice to say it was here that I learned how to think, question, and rebel.
I was never satisfied with the neatly packaged ideas that were presented to me; I needed to know why things were/are the way they were/are. Consequently, after obtaining my degree I left the Church on a somewhat transcendental (some may call it spiritual) quest of self-discovery. I immersed myself in philosophy, history, quantum theory, astrophysics, economics, art, sociology, political theory, and a myriad of other subjects until I realized that everything I had been taught was a systematic normalization of the individual based on castes of privilege and oppression. I did not take this knowledge lying down; I took it to the streets.
A few years into College I started to become radicalized. My Alma Mater is a beacon for the conservative cause to the point that they would stand by Governmental-Administrative human rights abuses in the name of divine directive. I started to speak out, write and distribute pamphlets, and protest. It was Desmond Tutu who said that to see injustice and do nothing is to side with the oppressor.
Fast forward to 2011. I had done some time in Seminary before my (self-described) enlightenment and moved to Philadelphia. It was here that I first started to Occupy.
From September 19th, 2011—2 days into the US movement—I committed myself to fighting back. I started by going to Zuccotti Park to set up camp at Occupy Wall Street. I arrived the day that the police violence started and decided to come home and hopefully help set up the movement in Philly. I was there from day 1 of Occupy Philly when we were just a couple of people on a Facebook page trying to kindle a flame. Eventually, it erupted into a fire. Once again I will save you the time of the entire story, but suffice it to say that I was intimately involved from organizing rallies and protests to leading marches; starting a Free university; forming a communication infrastructure to keep the global movement connected; planning national gatherings; occupying bank lobbies; meeting with Governors and Congresspeople to demand certain reforms; speaking on panels from Johns Hopkins to Villanova Universities; and organizing disaster relief when the American Red Cross and FEMA could not get their acts together in New Jersey. And that was just a sampling of the work I did. The papers I have written about my experiences in the social justice movement since then would take up far too much space for this particular letter.
Point being: I have learned more about history, government, economics, geography, sociology, and anthropology in the streets and in self-study over the past three years than I was ever even exposed to as another brick in the wall of the education system.
That last comment finally brings me to the point of my prose: I want to attend your school but do not meet the requirements as laid out by your admissions process. A few of you have even looked over my transcripts (thank you) and evaluated what I would need in order to meet those pre-reqs: basic world history and US; economics; geography; government; anthropology; and sociology courses. So then, what shall I do? Go to a local community College and rack up more debt to take these courses so I meet the prerequisites? Why?
For the last year or so I have been supplementing my real work—as I have laid out above—with working at a teashop in South Philly. I work for $9/hr to pay the bills. I have also recently gotten engaged to a beautiful woman and am trying to start a family. To start that family I have tried to seek self-betterment by going back to school to teach. I have always had a passion to teach and if there is anywhere on the East Coast of the US that needs bright, driven, and inspired teachers who are willing to sacrifice to make the system better, it's Philadelphia. So, I have come to you to obtain the learning necessary to teach the next generation, but, again, I have hit a wall.
I do not have the time or the money to take these courses. In addition to working and starting a family I also maintain my own personal work in the form of writing and making art for my online presence, a necessity in this day and age (www.larryswetman.com). If I were to add to that workload a full year and a half of superfluous classes I would also be adding to financial strain and stress of my marriage for what? So, that I meet requirements on paper? Do I not already meet the requirements? Have I not passed these courses outside of the context of a traditional classroom?
What can I learn of the method of history when my presupposition is already to apply a historical exegesis that takes authorial intent and socio-political context into account? Should I relay the history of the Mujahedeen and how the unification efforts of what we call "Afghanistan" are simply tribal conflicts of resistors who do not want a national government with territorial lines drawn by western oppressors? Shall I connect this story to the CIA funded rise of the Taliban and how it relates to rise of "terrorism"? Shall I write you an essay on how modern terror tactics on derived from early '70s American-backed-and-state-sanctioned terror in Latin America? What more World or US history should I know before I am qualified to teach? How about the genocide of the Native peoples of what we call the "United States?" None of that stuff is taught. I had to learn it on my own, but since I didn't pay for it to be on my transcripts there is no way for you to know.
How about economics? Should we talk about John Locke's theory of private property about how it has inspired the current hierarchical models of authority based on ownership? Can we talk about capitalism and how it has failed the global economy? How about how the world produces more than enough food to feed every person but the supply chain is too broken to work on such levels? How about climate change and the rise of CO2 levels pre-and post-industrial revolution? We could talk about alternatives that aren't in the textbooks as well. In my time working in disaster relief in New Jersey and New York, we developed systems of mutual-aid that brought people and resources to those in need without the use of capital. How about talking about such alternatives? What about how unregulated price manipulators are the reasons for such soaring healthcare costs in the US despite a drop in quality? These are economic issues not taught in textbooks.
How about government? Though I have taken a community College class on American government, I was never taught about the actual political process. How about Citizen's United or McCutcheon? Will the classes teach me how the political process is manipulated by the richest individuals, corporations, and unions to pick the winners before the people ever have a chance to speak? How about the revolving door of staffers to lobbyists that keeps the Oligarchy in tact? I have learned more about government sitting in handcuffs in the back of police paddy wagons than I was ever taught in GOV101.
I could go on from sociology to anthropology talking about the systematic oppression of people of color in this country and its historical connection to slavery, but I will come to the end.
Though I grew up poor my mother tried to instill in me a sense of the so-called "American Dream." "Larry," she used to say, "if you work hard you can be anything you want to be." My experience in the world and seeing those around me has taught that this is a lie. The only reason it is called the American Dream is because you have to be asleep to believe it. Stumbling blocks and inhibitions to progress line the road to the Dream like roadside bombs, waiting for you to slip up and touch them. For then debt can shackle you to normalcy; exhaustion can pacify your dissent; and you can work, consume, sleep, wake up and do it all over again for minimum wage your whole life while the elites fly high on Wall St. and in DC.
However, I am still a fool; I am still a dreamer. I still believe that academia offers a way out of the mire for everyone who is given the opportunity. My mother grew up as a poor orphan and to this day struggles, choosing sometimes between buying her food and getting her medicine. But I still believe there is a better way. I believe that people can make wise choices and though those choices may diverge from the norm they set precedent and consequently slowly change the status quo. How many times has the road less traveled made the difference?
I think I have made a pretty good case that I deserve to be in your program. Sure, I could go to those classes, pay those fees, and get those grades, but for what? I would lose time with my family and be farther in debt—for what? Basically, to make it easier on you all to know that I am qualified to be in your program. I can assure I am. I have stood toe to toe with Governors in their own offices and shamed them into admitting their historical, sociological, and governmental inadequacies; I have been beaten on the streets on Philadelphia and New York by Police Departments designed to maintain systems of oppression at the cost of our communities; and—most importantly to me—I have risen from depths of poverty to do so.
I think what my mama was trying to tell me when she tried to instill that Dream in me was that where there is an opportunity…take it. I need an opportunity. If you all find that I deserve one I can assure you that not only will I graduate your program, but will shine in it. Who knows, I might be able to instill the values of an American Dream—truly believing them—to the next generation and they might change the world.
In all humility I thank you for taking the time to read my story though it's not done yet; there are several chapters to be written. I write this in the hopes that the next one will be entitled…
My Years at UPENN.
Larry Reginald Swetman