There are a lot of unlikely things about John Sperling’s story — like the fact that he even made it to college at all.
“We always lived in tiny houses,” Sperling writes in a memoir, Rebel with a Cause, published in 2000. “We ate mostly what came out of the garden, the henhouse, and two milk cows.” His mother was constantly worried that her children — three boys and two girls — would starve.
Sperling’s father was an unsuccessful farmer who spent a lot of time payday loans in Forest Hills looking for other ways to make money. At one point he “sold drinks and snacks on a train that ran between Kansas City and somewhere,” writes Sperling.
No one in Sperling’s family had gone to college. “I had no idea that college was even a possibility,” he said in an interview with American RadioWorks.
After high school Sperling joined the Merchant Marine. It was 1939, the tenth year of the Great Depression, and he writes that his fellow seamen were “socialists plus a sprinkling of communists.” Sperling came from a family of Republicans, but the culture of the left appealed to him and he became a socialist.
Socialism ignited an intellectual curiosity in Sperling that led him to enroll at a community college in San Francisco when he got out of the Merchant Marine. He went to class during the day and worked at a gas station at night. He had always hated school, but “this time school was different,” he writes in his memoir. “All the classes were easy for me and I got straight A’s.”
Community college didn’t last long. He had started in the fall of 1941. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December, Sperling enlisted in the Navy Air Corps. While he waited to be called, he enrolled at Reed, a prestigious liberal arts college in Portland, Oregon; his family was now living in Portland. “Had it not been for my one semester of junior college A’s plus the fact that Reed desperately wanted males to replace the ones leaving daily, I would not have made it in,” he writes.
“I loathed them,” he said, “because of their privilege. They were always saying, ‘I got where I did because of hard work,’ and I thought, ‘You stupid son of a bitch, you don’t know how privileged you are.'”
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Sperling found the coursework at Reed more challenging than at San Francisco City College. His classmates were from private high schools or very good public schools, and they were much better prepared than he was. In his memoir Sperling writes that he spent a lot of time “brooding over the fact that, as someone born poor with a lousy education, I was in an unfair competition. these students had been acculturated to value education and they looked forward confidently to future careers in academe, government, business, and the professions.”
Sperling was eventually called up for flight training but never saw action in the war. He returned to Reed after his military service and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1948. He didn’t know what to do after that. He says if he’d had the right connections, he might have gone to work on Wall Street. But he didn’t, so he decided to go to graduate school.
Sperling went to the University of California, Berkeley for a Ph.D. in history. While at Berkeley he won a fellowship to study for three years at King’s College Cambridge in England, completing his Ph.D. at Cambridge. He says the only thing all that education prepared him for was life as a professor. He got a faculty job in the humanities program at San Jose State in California. But he was perpetually unhappy in what he saw as the bourgeois world of academia.