Sunday, January 08, 2012

Sometimes things are too good to be true: Evergreen and the history of the IWW

Not the IWW in general, but the history of it I learned at The Evergreen State College.

Contrary to prevailing opinion, Evergreen is not, in general, a place where one ideological position predominates and where if you dissent you're ostracized by your teachers. I had many great teachers,sincere and committed radicals, who were open to dissenting viewpoints. But in this particular program the IWW was naively presented in a one sided way, as a fait accompli of goodness. Despite being a Northwest History course, all our information on the IWW came from IWW sources, consisting of a book by an IWW member and articles from IWW newspapers. Not only were there no other voices, there wasn't any mentions of other labor organizations in the Northwest of the early 20th century.

At a certain point people started questioning our teacher's approach, and she told us that what might be going on was that we were having trouble believing an organization like the IWW had actually existed, meaning that one as good as it had existed. My contribution to the conversation that prompted this response was questioning whether the IWW had been really as racially inclusive as it claimed.

No, we weren't hardened cynics, but when something looks to good to be true it usually is, especially in academia. Our skepticism didn't come from limited imaginations but from an awareness, on some level, that the information we'd been given was not nuanced and seasoned with the normal pitfalls of life, and errors, that all organizations experience.

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