B. Traven’s “Assembly Line”: Teaching Exploitation

Yesterday I returned to teaching after four years of retirement.  I am teaching two sections of Writing Through Literature and using the excellent anthology Literature and Society (editors Pamela Annas and Robert C. Rosen, both of the Radical Teacher collective) which groups the literary genres of poetry, drama, fiction and non-fiction under such themes as Money and Work, War and Peace, and Varieties of Protest, making it considerably easier to teach literature from a progressive left prospective.

Not having taught this course in well over fifteen years, I am curious if or how the political understanding of my students may or may not have changed over the past decade and a half.  I have one particular memory of my earlier experience teaching this course and using the first edition of this anthology (it is now in the fourth edition).

I was teaching B. Traven’s short story “Assembly Line” which is about a New York businessman who is visiting Mexico and finds a peasant craftsman who can make baskets which have the exact same design both inside and outside the basket.  The New Yorker immediately recognizes the beauty of and the possibilities for making a tremendous profit from such a craft and asks the peasant if he would be willing to make large numbers of the basket which he eventually decides to do for a small profit, although nothing compared to the vastly larger profit the businessman will make reselling the baskets at some crafts fair in New York.  One of the study questions accompanying the story asked what the students felt about the “exploitation” of the Mexican peasant by the New York businessmen.  To my surprise, about half the class did not feel that the arrangement struck between the craftsman and the salesman was “exploitation” because the peasant agrees to the terms.  I was shocked and kept going over the percentage of profit (something like 100 percent) and the difference in business sophistication between the two parties.  Nonetheless, half of my class continued to argue that no “exploitation” can occur if there is agreement.  In exasperation, I asked the class what their majors were. To a person, the students who felt no exploitation occurred in the story were Business majors.  All the other students who agreed that exploitation occurred were Liberal Arts majors.  Draw your own conclusions and share them with me.

When I get to “Assembly Line” this semester and use the same study question again, I wonder if there will be any change in the students’ understanding of “exploitation,” given that these last fifteen years of economic struggles have given the word an even more relevant and pervasive meaning.  I’ll let you know on my next blog.

By Leonard Vogt

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