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    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

Politics, pedagogy, the press and professors (a prickly post)
December 15, 2009 - 8:57pm

Thanks to Terry Calhoun for stating briefly what I will now attempt to say with excruciating verbosity. I've been thinking about this since my last post -- it just took a while to meld.

I meant what I said in the last post about hoping that there's little political advocacy going on in the classrooms I consult to. But "political advocacy" and politics are not the same thing. "Advocacy" means to speak for, in the sense of to promote or to represent. My objections to political advocacy by teachers in class situations are (1) it's not necessary, and (2) it doesn't work well. What works much better is pointing students to the relevant information (or letting them find their own way, with just a little help), and then having an open and honest discussion about the meaning of what they've found. As I said in the last post, "If a student seriously engages with the idea that natural resources (both sources and sinks) are finite, that the systems which interact to produce the planet's climate are many and complex, and that societies may have a responsibility to address problems of their own creation, then I'm satisfied." That's not because I don't care about the students' conclusions or that I'm really in the business of teaching research skills or theory, it's because I'm highly confident that any intelligent student who is exposed to the material and engages with it seriously will come to a reasonable and thereby useful conclusion. (In the spirit of full disclosure, I must admit that Greenback has -- on occasion -- admitted students whose intelligence is of considerable doubt. Such is life.)

Terry's right that teaching the status quo is, in effect, advocating for it. That's certainly the way I feel about some of the classes in our business school and a number of our professional programs. And teaching the status quo doesn't help students develop critical thinking skills, which I consider to be one of the major benefits of higher education (or, really, education as opposed to training, whatever the level).

The truth of the matter is that education is always a political act. If what's being taught enhances critical thinking, then the possibility of political change appears. If what's being taught is merely training at a mechanistic level, then the possibility of political change is suppressed. Any teacher, in any classroom, can refuse to be dragged into a discussion of D's vs. R's. Party Politics can be avoided, but the political simply cannot be.

So if there's no way to avoid politics, but advocacy is a no-no, what's a person to do? My hope is that teachers present their students, early in a semester, with a brief summary of their political stance as it relates to the subject matter at hand. But this should be accompanied with the statement "this is where I am, it doesn't have to be where you end up", as well as "the reason I'm even telling you this is that it may inform some of the thoughts I share with you in the classroom -- if you know where I'm coming from, you may better be able to interpret and evaluate them."

I've done a fair amount of adjuncting over the years, in a couple of different subjects (some sustainability-related, some not). In the first session of each class, I've always tried to explain the nature of my professional background, the experiences that have conformed my opinions and my preferences, and use that to stimulate a discussion of how my perspective and situation differ from the situations and experiences of the students. In that way, I effectively give them permission to reach different conclusions than I have, in part because the problems they're solving are different from ones I've experienced. Again, it's not Party Politics, but -- since most of what I teach involves working with people in various sorts of organizations -- political, it most definitely is.

As regards the press (or the media in general), I'd have to say that they're probably the loudest and most constant voice which tacitly reinforces any given status quo. My personal least-favorite "analyst" is Juan Williams (of Fox News and, incongruously, NPR). If that man has ever pronounced the results of anything deserving of the term "analysis", I must have missed it. To my mind, he represents the national media in its attempts to get along by going along and its fascination with maintaining access to people in power. "Brown-nosing" is what we used to call it, albeit in less culturally fastidious times.

I do think that Michael Legaspi has a point when he points out that "part of what makes the CRU affair ‘debacular’ is the fact that the story of an academic conspiracy to suppress “deniers” is plausible at all." The fact of the matter is that much of the American public (I can't speak about publics on other continents) has no trust in science and limited trust in academe. And the responsibility for that has to land squarely on the shoulders of academics themselves. Or, if not the individual academic actors, then the system in which they act. Let's face it, no one ever got tenure or was promoted to full (much less distinguished) professor on the basis of helping the public understand (1) what science had discovered, and (2) why they should care. And colleges and universities have done an execrable job of explaining the value they provide their students, much less the non-student population.

For years, high school guidance counselors (not to mention university admissions staff) have steered students toward college on the promise of increased lifetime earnings. But those earnings increases aren't nearly as attractive as they once seemed to be (trust me on that one), and the economic argument has pretty much used up all the available oxygen -- no other argument has had much of a chance.

Still, think about that for a second. What I've just described is a highly political situation. Selling education on the basis of increased earnings is selling it as a private good -- of benefit to the individual, not the society. It benefits a particular political philosophy. It implies acceptance of the status quo (which is, after all, the provider of those promised earnings). It decreases the potential for political change, at least a little bit, with every student who takes the bait.

Unfortuantely, nobody's doing an effective job of advocating -- this time, outside the classroom and indeed outside the campus -- for education as a public good and critical thinking as perhaps the most important capacity of responsible citizens under a republican form of government. All right, maybe not literally nobody. But not nearly enough folks Not nearly enought professors. At not nearly enough volume.

 

 

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