My Love Affair With Books: Self-Education From Greaseball to Street Intellectual – Part II 1989- 2017

Between the worlds

Throughout all my formal studies, I continued to be an artist model and it wasn’t until I began teaching in college that the paths of teaching and modelling crossed in irreconcilable ways. My first teaching gig was at New College of California in 1988, teaching Soviet Personality Theory, a course that I made up. About the second week I was teaching there the booking secretary of the Model’s Guild offered me a modelling job in the New College Art Department. The possibility of students in an art class turning up in my Soviet Personality Theory class was not a prospect I wanted to consider. At that point I realized that I was at the end of the line of my modelling life. From that point on, while I was expanding my part-time teaching work, I also took part-time work as a psychological counselor, working in halfway houses for two years. Throughout it all I continued to read about two hours a day, come hell or high water.

The directors at the halfway houses didn’t know what to make of me. Here I was with a masters degree in counseling. Shouldn’t I stop reading since I was done with school? If I was going to read, the least I could do was read books in my field. But here I was reading Stephen J. Gould’s Ontogeny and Phylogeny, Bohm’s Causality and Chance in Modern Physics and Bergson’s Creative Evolution. After a while I would hide the books, so I didn’t have to explain myself.

 “Open your mouth and keep your clothes on”: becoming a road scholar

One of the best things about teaching in liberal arts schools was that they respected interdisciplinary learning. I transformed all the reading and note taking I had done into courses, which the liberal arts department welcomed. My first course was Visionary Adult Development in which I was able to present dialectical operations as a fifth stage of cognitive development beyond Piaget’s formal operations. I used biographies of James Baldwin and Malcolm X as my case studies. To the cultural studies department I presented a class on Cultural Evolution from the Stone Age to the Present. Did I have a degree in this? No. Did the chair of the department care? No, because she knew I was knowledgeable after I showed her my bibliography: Leslie White, Julian Steward, Elman Service, Marshall Sahlins, Marvin Harris, Gerhard Lenski. I loved them all long before Cultural Evolution was even a twinkle in my eye.

One time I found a textbook in a used bookstore called Environmental Psychology. This was a subject I had never seen covered in any of my college work. It was about the impact of physical space on people’s psychology, including the size of rooms, the height of the ceilings, territoriality and how people react to natural disasters. I loved this stuff. For the better part of two years I read three or four textbooks and a number of experts such as Irvin Altman Yi-Fu Tuan and Robert Sack. I knew when I was ready I would propose it as a course and it would be accepted, which it was. I also taught more traditional courses like Cross-Cultural Psychology and Social Psychology but my favorites were always the courses I made up.

The Seeds of my first book: From Earth Spirits to Sky Gods

Just around the time I began teaching at the liberal arts school, I began to develop an interest in tribal and ancient societies. I loved Engels’ book, Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State but felt Marx and Engels had been too sweeping in their lumping together tribal spirituality and the “Great Religions”. After all, I reasoned, if hunter-gatherers were egalitarian, than their spiritual practices must have been different than those of the Great Religions which emerged after the development of social classes. I read F.M Cornford’s From Religion to Philosophy; E.R. Dodd’s The Greeks and the Irrational; Eric Havelock, Geoffrey E.R. Lloyd , Gilbert Murray, Jane Harrison, Bruno Snell, James Breasted, Mircea Eliade along with the work of Jack Goody, among many others. As I read, I began to develop a course which I called From Earth Spirits to Sky-Gods. I taught the class about five times before my lecture notes got so big that I realized I had the basis of my first book. I worked on that book for twelve years.

Following my passions

Over the years, I have not been shy about contacting authors whom I admired.

Some of these folks welcomed the contact and others didn’t. In the early 1990s, I began to become interested in the world-systems theory of Immanuel Wallerstein. There was one particular world-systems theorist, Chris Chase-Dunn whose work I really liked. Chris was the most unpretentious academic I’ve ever met. I asked him some penetrating questions about his work through email. After a while he said “you ask a lot of questions. What are you working on?” When I told him, he asked me to send him the manuscript. About two years later he wrote me a letter of recommendation to Lexington Press which convinced them they should take my manuscript. Did Chris ask me what my credentials were? He did not. He understood that I was an interdisciplinary scholar and saw from the manuscript I had something important to say. About a year later he asked me if I wanted to write a book with him. I was paralyzed. This guy was relatively famous, at least in world-systems circles. He had PhD in sociology. I expressed my reservations and I told him I had never even taken a sociology class. He shrugged it off. He said to me “in world-systems theory we are all trespassers.” Around 2001 we began writing a book together, a book that was called Social Change: Globalization From The Stone Age to the Present which was published by Paradigm Publishers.

Power in Eden

In the early 1990’s a feminist student of mine took my From Earth-spirits to Sky-Gods course, loved the class but complained to me that there was not enough discussion of the the lives of women between the Stone Ages and the Axial Iron Age. This led me to the work of Janet Chafetz-Salisman, Peggy Reeves-Sanday, and Christine Ward-Galley. Between 2000 when Earth Spirits was published, and 2005 I worked on a manuscript that later turned into my second published book, Power in Eden. I sent my former student my 410-page copy. Inside the cover I wrote to her, “Are you happy now”. We had a good laugh.

You are a Street Intellectual

At the university, you don’t come across too many working-class people. But at one university I had a student who was a fireman. This guy liked me enough to take two or three of my classes. One time the guy took me aside and told me how much he appreciated me as a teacher. I tried to say that there were many good teachers at the school. He was having none of it. He said, “you are not like the other teachers. You don’t talk like them. You don’t act like them. You ought to be on a street corner on Mission street, agitating for the revolution.” “Well, what would that make me”, I asked. You’re a street intellectual, that’s what you are”. I looked at him, speechless. I’ve never forgotten this. It is the greatest compliment I’ve ever received about my work.

From Universities to community colleges

About 13 years ago, after a steep decline in the capitalist economy made it very difficult to teach in liberal arts universities, I bit the bullet and applied for part time community college teaching. The prospect of teaching 18-21-year-old students after 14 years of teaching older adults in night school was something I dreaded.

When I was interviewed for the job, the chairs of the psychology and the sociology departments couldn’t believe that I had written two books on my own without being forced to. “Why would anyone want to write books if they weren’t forced to by the department? How could I have had the time to write books on the salary of an adjunct?” These were exactly the kinds of academic questions that drove me away from school 36 years ago.

While they thought it was very impressive that I had written two books that crossed about six different disciplines, they did not want me to maintain my interdisciplinary focus once I began teaching. Community colleges are much more narrow in focus than the universities and they insisted that I could not teach in areas in which I had no degree. So I spent most of my time smuggling my interests into the classes anyway. I used to create two syllabi. One was what I called the “family values” syllabus which was what I gave to the administration. The other was the “X” rated syllabus which I gave to the students which contained what I was really going to do in the class.

To give you one example, I taught a class called Psychology of Modern Life

This was supposed to be a class about how to apply psychology to everyday life. This included working on yourself psychologically while touting the humanism of the field of psychology. But after I watched Adam Curtis’ Century of Self, I realized there was another side to psychology, a very deceptive side. So I developed a course called Brainwashing, Propaganda and Rhetoric: Dark Psychology in the 20th century. This lead me to study Cults, advertising, nationalism and sports as propaganda. I studied the work of Robert J. Lifton, William Sargent, Jacques Ellul, Erving Goffman and Serge Moscovici. I did this for nine years before the administration found out what I was doing. Part of the reason I was able to do this is that the students never complained to the administration about what I was teaching.

Capitalist economic violence against adjuncts

Between 2007 and 2014 I taught a class at one university called The History of Psychology every semester. As usual, I started out with an established textbook but became increasingly critical of it. My lecture notes kept getting fatter and fatter as I brought in material on the history of the senses, cognitive evolution in history, the history of eating habits, James Hillman’s work on polytheistic psychology, along with work on the history of mental illness and crowd psychology. In 2013 I requested that the department make my manuscript available for students to purchase. I was turned down because it hadn’t been published as a book yet. So much for academia supporting the work of scholars. I worked on my book another year, a book called Forging Promethean Psychology. Six months before the class was to begin, I was told by the department that I was being “bumped” from teaching the class. Why? There were the usual budget cuts. They were cutting classes and the full-timers had to teach the remaining classes that were left. So I had a book for my class, was all dressed up and nowhere to go.


Generally, the movement of my intellectual life began by passively reading books and taking notes on them. As I began to discuss some of my reading and wrote papers when I went back to college, I started to apply my reading. Once I began to teach classes the relationship between reading, speaking and writing got reversed. In my later years reading was done in the service of speaking, writing, and teaching. However, I still read in many subjects like the sciences, which I will never write books about or teach.

I have never seen myself as an academic. Even at the world-systems conferences I attended, and with which I had great sympathy, I never felt at home. I have always felt academics were pompous, and out of touch with real life, especially the full-time academics. I’ve always seen my work teaching as empowering students. I never cared much about what the other teachers thought and I’ve frankly been disappointed at how lacking in intellectual ambition most of the college teachers I’ve met were.

Over the years I developed a library large enough to cause tension in my relationship, with books spilling out of every room and stuffed into closet shelves. When I stood at the counter at Moe’s Books in Berkeley three or four years ago, I said to the guy at the counter, “If I ever get a divorce, I could see the reason in print: ’cause of divorce: too many fuckin books in the house’”. I still remember Niccolo Machiavelli’s quote:

“When evening comes, I return home and go into my study. On the threshold I strip off my muddy, sweaty, workday clothes, and put on the robes of court and palace, and in this graver dress I enter the antique courts of the ancients and am welcomed by them, and there I taste the food that alone is mine, and for which I was born. And there I make bold to speak to them and ask the motives of their actions, and they, in their humanity, reply to me. And for the space of four hours I forget the world, remember no vexation, fear poverty no more, tremble no more at death: I pass indeed into their world.”

Through break-ups, aggravation with socialist organizations and financial insecurity I have never lost the feeling that there is nothing like sitting in my library reading while listening to classical music and drinking a cup of coffee.







About Bruce Lerro

Bruce Lerro has taught for 25 years as an adjunct college professor of psychology at Golden Gate University, Dominican University and Diablo Valley College. He has applied a Vygotskian socio-historical perspective to his five books: "From Earth-Spirits to Sky-Gods: the Socio-ecological Origins of Monotheism, Individualism and Hyper-Abstract Reasoning", "Power in Eden: The Emergence of Gender Hierarchies in the Ancient World" (co-authored with Christopher Chase-Dunn), "Social Change: Globalization from the Stone Age to the Present", "Lucifer's Labyrinth: Individualism, Hyper-Abstract Thinking and the Process of Becoming Civilized", and "The Magickal Enchantment of Materialism: Why Marxists Need Neopaganism". He is also a representational artist specializing in pen-and-ink drawings. Bruce is a libertarian communist and lives in Olympia, WA.

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