Robin Clarke, an adjunct English professor at the University of Pittsburgh, posed a question to the crowd at Occupy Pittsburgh's third teach-in on Saturday: "I ask who at this university is awake and who is asleep right now?"
She continued her introduction with a poem she had written for the occasion: "We demand an education in the people's vocation," she recited, carefully accentuating each word as it resonated inside the William Pitt Union.
The teach-in, co-sponsored by Occupy Pittsburgh's Education Working Group and a Pitt group GLOCAL, focused on transforming education to benefit all Americans. It addressed topics including student debt, the commercialization of education and the role of Quebec's "Maple Spring" that mobilized more than 400,000 students to protest proposed tuition hikes.
About 70 people attended the teach-in, including many college graduates and university professors. About a dozen current students were present.
Zach Erway, a 21-year-old junior at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, said he accepts his student debt as part of the educational equation. He took out $11,500 in private loans this year.
"I realize I'm going to be in debt, but it's the price you gotta pay for higher education," he said.
"With the economy and the unemployment rate as it is, it seems like a daunting task to find a job in any market, but if you work well and you get exceptional grades, you shouldn't have a problem being able to pay those debts off over time."
At the teach-in, talks of student debt took on a different tone. Many of the speakers expressed the view that education is a social need, not a consumer good. Some proposed the need to erase all student debt and challenge the system that creates it.
Pennsylvania currently holds the second-highest rate of student debt across the nation.
The debt faced by college graduates nationally rose by 5 percent last year to an average of $26,000, according to a report by the Project on Student Debt at The Institute for College Access and Success in Oakland, Calif.
Ms. Clarke touched on "income inequality," noting that most professors are not benefitting from the rising cost of tuition.
"Most of my colleagues make $3,000 a class, which means $12,000 a year, which means that they qualify for food stamps to help students learn to think critically and change the world that they live in," Ms. Clarke said.
"Tuition at Pitt is about $15,000 a year, which means that one student in the class pays the salary of the teacher. So where is all that other tuition going?"
In one workshop, a group of Pitt students examined ways to organize a successful protest against rising tuition.
Nauss Steeves, who came to Pittsburgh from Montreal to discuss the success of Quebec's student strike, said the results would be difficult to replicate in America, mostly due to differences in culture and history.
"Quebec people expect to win. They have, for decades, won," he said, citing Quebec's tradition of organizing successful student strikes since the 1960s. "I think it's not an easy thing to create this political culture where people actually feel entitled and frustrated when they're not winning as quickly as they feel they should be."
Teach-ins are part of an ongoing effort by Occupy Pittsburgh to inform the public on various issues.
Previous teach-ins have included a session on corporate power at the United Steelworkers headquarters and another in Homewood that discussed economic and social issues in the community.
Emily Petsko: email@example.com or 412-263-1468.