Preston H. Smith II awarded the Mount Holyoke College Faculty Award for Teaching

Preston H. Smith II, Class of 1926 Professor of Politics, is awarded the Mount Holyoke College Faculty Award for Teaching.

In 1845 Karl Marx sat down to reckon with his intellectual debts to Hegel, the Young Hegelians, and the philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach. The outline of chapter 1 in what became The German Ideology proposed eleven theses about the obligations of intellectuals as they engaged with the so-called real world. Marx believed that his teachers had grown distracted by form, their liberatory gaze averted in a truth-tracking quest to deduce perfect institutional arrangements of society. Marx argued that their “chief defect” was this obsession with earthly heavens, leading to their failure to articulate “sensuous human activity, or practice” as a politics of transformation. In contrast, Marxist revolutionary practitioners have insisted they are in the end a doing, a collective rather than individual matter of social transformation. “Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways,” he concluded, “the point is to change it.”

We are honored to present to Professor Preston Smith the Mount Holyoke College Faculty Award for Teaching, for his achievements in the classroom and in independent work with our students. His career reflects and enacts Marx’s grand thesis. Since his undergraduate days at Howard University, he has belonged to critical class-centered scholar/activist communities committed to extending class-inflected understandings of black freedom struggle after enslavement. He joined Mount Holyoke in 1992 and has taught courses such as American Politics, Black Metropolis/Southside Chicago, Urban Politics, Race and Housing, and Dislocation: Class and Politics. In each of these courses and in his leadership holding the campus accountable through community engagement, Preston has supported local and national movements for social transformation. Students describe learning with him with endless superlatives and gratitude. “A great, balanced, and clear instructor”; “A course with very insightful critiques” that helped me think differently about our society and its problems; “A very engaging and challenging” course with “close readings of the assignments” that allowed me to take away a lot to think about after each class; “He is intense! He asked really good questions and strengthened my argumentation skills”; “This is one of those courses where what you learn is specifics about a particular case… [and he highlights] themes that can be applied more broadly.”

His classes offer a complex analysis of class politics as a critique of and alternative to the dangerous essentialisms of tribal identity. Students are invited to learn how to move collectively from listening to voices of the underserved to passage of policies that accomplish three important goals: (1) provision of basic needs that reduce deprivation and increase belonging, (2) enhancement of primary autonomy to live freely and securely, and (3) further broaden robust, dynamic coalitions that sustain a just democracy for everyone. His published work on Chicago is noteworthy given Chicago’s long and often unsuccessful history of social experiment to steer people out of durable inequalities and deprivations, even under the guidance of Black leadership. His courses investigate overlooked political questions such as why Dr. King’s desegregation plan failed in Chicago, or how long term social and economic inequities become entrenched in our cities through governance, or how gentrification, deindustrialization, automation, and low-wage employment dislocate urban dwellers from access to resources and opportunities, leaving development as unfreedom in their wake.

In 1851 France’s Louis Bonaparte, nephew of Napoleon, declared himself Emperor of the Nation. Rather than cut Louis down to size—a task for which Marx was more than capable– Marx turned to the masses of people affected by the puny, repugnant autocrat. Marx defiantly announced [paraphrasing], “We make our own history, but we do not make it as we please. We make it under circumstances existing already…” Therefore, through political struggle from one to the many, the futures of our lives belong to us. We organize, we communicate, we repair…guided by Love, Study, and endless organized Struggle. There is no more apt description of the slow, steady, patient, yet persistent work of learning from the archive and listening to the people of our Teaching Award recipient. Wherever there is capitalism, goes Preston’s mantra, class matters, and until we reckon with the dynamics of class struggle in all its forms, none of us are free and secure, none of our societies democratic, just. We celebrate Preston’s achievements as a teacher, and in honoring him with our gratitude, we thank him for the years of teaching ahead. Congratulations Preston!