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I’m mad as hell so you just failed my class

Caricature of SteveThe Washington Post today published a story about a Texas A&M Professor who failed his entire class because he didn’t like the students’ attitude.

Snopes, the site that debunks urban legends, casts doubt on the story because it is remarkably similar to earlier bogus reports.

I’m reminded of a similar incident when I was an undergraduate at the University of Iowa in the mid 1960s. That time, however, the story was true.

My major was political science but my minor was anthropology. To take the upper division classes I wanted in anthropology, I had to enroll in one of two prerequisite courses.

I chose what turned out to be a seminar of about six students who met with Dr. Donald Barnett in a room hardly larger than a walk-in closet.

Professor Barnett, an assistant professor of anthropology and sociology, was an outspoken Marxist. The textbook for the course was “Profiles in Ethnology” and the course exams were over the book chapters. But all class handouts and discussions were about socialism and communism.

I’m not sure how much I learned about indigenous societies, but I certainly got a head full about the alienation of the working class,  bourgeois hegemony, emergence of a proletariat dictatorship, leading—eventually—to the collectivist society of Communism.

As one student asked during the semester, “What do these readings and discussions have to do with primitive societies?” Barnett’s answer was another monologue on the evils of capitalism.

One day Dr. Barnett mentioned that a university professor at another institution was protesting the Vietnam War by withholding class grades. It was obvious our prof was quite taken with the idea but, fortunately, we were not affected.

I passed the course, moved onto other classes more closely aligned to what the University of Iowa course catalogue descriptions promised, and forgot about Professor Barnett.

One year later, the idea of withholding grades as a political protest against the U.S. government apparently reached full germination and Professor Barnett refused to enter grades for one of his classes.

The University withheld his paycheck. The next semester he submitted failing grades at midterm for every student in another course. This time the University moved to fire him.

Barnett said he acted to protest the “common-law marriage of the University and the U.S. military-industrial complex.” He added, “And with current U.S. aggression in Vietnam, this complete cooperation of the University with the military is tantamount to complicity in murder and collaboration in genocide.”

The University gave the students the option of either dropping the course, with no penalty for graduating seniors, or accepting what the administration guessed would have been their actual grades.

I don’t know what happened to Dr. Barnett. It’s been 50 years since I was in his class; he may have died. But the latest news about another university professor flunking his students as a protest resurrected the memory of Professor Barnett. A university teacher in another time and place who was framing his own opposition to what he perceived as injustice.

Maybe I didn’t learn much. But I disagreed with that tactic half a century ago; I still think it’s wrong today.

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