Opening Lecture Notes for Social Issues in Education

THE QUESTION

I’ve come to believe that there are ways we can make the social world less unjust. One of those ways is to change the systems of governance that set the pace and style of life as we produce our lives together. That is: economically. The system of governance that we have now, worldwide–but of which the US is a kind of center now, is capitalism.

Making the social world less unjust means changing that world, and changing that world means changing capitalism to something else. I don’t yet know what that something else is, but I’m convinced that we should study capitalism and study it with an eye towards unlearning it, or learning a new way of being with one another and producing our lives together. So, as students of education, I’ve decided to teach what we’re going to learn this semester. We’re going to get an idea of what capitalism is, how it works, and how we reproduce it, asking: Does school reproduce capitalism? That is, is schooling an institution that bolsters systems of governance, undoes them, or can it be an institution which brokers that change? Can school make the world less unjust?

A CHICKEN AND EGG PROBLEM

In particular I’m interested in a kind of chicken and egg problem. Does capitalism cause school to be a certain way, or is it school that causes society to be in a capitalist way? If we change school can we change society or must society change in order to change school?

That’s my interest and when I teach I make the class a kind of experiment, or attempt to know more about the question, be able to explore it more, have more to say about the ideas involved in the question, and come up with new questions.

READING ABSTRACT PHILOSOPHICAL TEXTS: CUTTING OUT THE MIDDLE PEOPLE

Before we go into the readings themselves I want to say something general about reading abstract, philosophical, and difficult texts. What we’re going to read will be difficult. You will probably have a hard time with it–you may not have read philosophy or canonical texts like these, and if you have you may not have enjoyed it. But. There is a but. While these texts are not pleasant, while they use terms in unfamiliar ways, there is a benefit to challenging yourself to interpret them, particularly as educators.

1. Fearlessness

First, reading abstract texts, slogging through them, creates an intellectual fearlessness. If you make it through Capital and the Grundrisse and Althusser, you will gain a confidence to interpret any kind of dense text. You can make sense of all kinds of things because you’ve made your way through these.

2. Pushing back

Also, this fearlessness can help you push back when people try to tell you that something is too complicated, or beyond you. You can say to yourself to or even to them directly, “no, I’ve read Marx and he doesn’t say that” or “I’ve read some economic theory and I’m not sure I understand you…” As teachers and educators there will be politicians, consultants, and administrators who will depend on your believing them, not pushing back, not asking questions. They will bank on your mind not being strong and/or you feeling like it isn’t. Reading dense texts can help you feel like your mind is strong and will not be fooled into coercion or subordination.

3. Cutting out middlepeople

There’s a third reason to read abstract texts as educators. Typically in education you study theories. Theories are sets of statements that experts string together based on their experience and profound inquiry, whether it be quantitative or qualitative. They think deeply on a question and then you’re supposed to learn what they’ve learned as it applies to education. These theorists you learn in other classes are middlepeople: they’ve done deep inquiry and they’re telling you what happened. The purpose of this is to give you new possibilities for educating. These possibilities are prefab and based on someone else’s experience. In this class, we cut out the middle man. You’re going to do the deep inquiry and then come up with a theory based on your experience. You’re going to create those possibilities for yourself by reading the dense text. It’s not easy to create those theories. It’s not pleasant. You’re going to feel like you have no idea what’s going on. You might dislike me for asking you to do it. But all these things are good signs. Creating new dimensions of possibility for yourself as a student and educator is a difficult process. I’ll help of course, but you’re just as smart as I am. I may know more, but our intelligences are equal–you can make meaning for yourself in your life just as well as I can. And I promise to teach with that in mind.

WHY READ MARX ET AL?

So, we’re going to read Marx, Althusser, Bowles and Gintis, and this will be a lens through which we look at contemporary global educational issues and online learning for those in the online class. I’d like to go through each author and tell you why I’m deciding to read them with you. Why read Marx? If you want to think about capitalism with an eye towards changing it, or thinking through it, there’s still no better writer to read than Marx. The critiques of capitalism are still relevant today and have helped me understand what modern society is, and how it changes. I’m willing to change my mind about this by the way, if you can tell me a good reason to do so.

1. Lenses for social change: Why I’ve picked the economic

Admittedly, we’re going to think about society through an economic and financial lens. This is only one lens. Economics is not sufficient for thinking through society and how it changes. There’s race, gender, sexuality, language, nationality, territory, environment, religion, age, education, history, and ability. No one of these is sufficient, but they are all necessary for understanding social change. The lens you choose to examine and then justify social change will depend on your own proclivity, interest, and experience.

As a white, straight, American, English-speaking, able-bodied, Jewish 30 year old cis-man with a PhD in philosophy of education from New England and New York, the social lens I’ve gravitated towards is the economic. Why? First, I don’t have to deal with oppression from the other categories. I’m about as privileged as you can get in our world: no sexism, racism, chauvinism, ableism, xenophobia, or degradation touches me. Maybe I can get a little oppression for my religion, which has a history of oppression, but enjoys thorough equality and respect in the US now. I’m starting to get some pressure for the fact that I have so much privilege, which is interesting. But in general the only oppression I’ve faced I have had to deal with is a kind of financial oppression.

Without baring all of my soul, what troubled me about the social world was the extent to which my parents were devoted to work and money. It pervaded my life: everything I was supposed to do was linked to work, making enough money, providing, etc. It made me angry–a meaningful, healthy, joyful life was supposed to take a backseat because of finances. Had to get good grades, get a degree, and get a job. This pressure was so strong I think capitalism and money had perverse effects on my family life and upbringing, and possibly those of my parents. It prevents flourishing. I also like systems and numbers, I studied philosophy of mathematics in university. So here I am studying political economy.

2. Other economic theorists

Now, even if you want to study political economy there are other theorists which you can read to think about society. Certainly you can read other theorists on society: Smith, Mill, Weber, Durkheim, Tarde. Why choose Marx and Althusser? The first two (Smith and Mill) are theorists of the status quo: you can think about capitalism but not think through it. They’re not interested in changing capitalism, only to the extent of making it stronger. I haven’t read much Weber, but I’ve read accounts that show him to be a bit ambivalent about capitalism, or his way of thinking lends itself to many positions–pro and con–and his idea of class, in particular, is not revolutionary. Tarde is interesting to me because of his emphasis on the material and concrete: he thinks society is always an infinite number of he’s and she’s making up the society: that society is not something over and above us, larger than us, but rather something we make in our little interactions every day. This appeals to me, but I’m not sure Tarde is anti-capitalist like Marx, whose materialism is equivalent. Marx is both anti-capitalist and rejects the idea that society is an abstract entity which influences us like a god or spirit or invisible hand.

You might object and say that the people who have read Marx on social change have had their day, and they messed up big time: Stalin, Mao, and Castro; gulags, executions, disappearances; unstable economies, war, destitution. Historical examples of communism are not bright shining examples of society. First, I wouldn’t be too sure of the ideological motivations behind these readings: history is written by power and capitalism is currently in power. It’s not in capitalists’ interests to write favorable histories of opposing systems. Second, capitalism is guilty of as many atrocities and sufferings as other systems, though they may look different. Third, Marx’s writing on capitalism is not the same as historical examples of communism. Specifically, his thinking about capitalism–Capital and Grundrisse–are inquiries, not polemics. There’s a way of reading Marx to hear him not as an authoritative, systematic, communist, but rather as someone thinking through capitalism and society in general in order to enable us to change it (Hollingshead 2013). Of all the theorists I’ve mentioned Marx thinks of society as historical and material, contingent on human and nonhuman events and decisions, not naturally or essentially one way or another, and he looks for ways to change it so preventable suffering does not occur at large scales. He was also a pretty good guy.

3. Althusser

Which brings us to Althusser. Louis Althusser understands this voice of Marx deeply and interprets Marx in just that way, philosophically. There are a number of objections to reading Althusser which don’t concern us now, but I have to face from colleagues. Chief among them are his style and past. He’s difficult to read, which leads some to think of him as not reading Marx the way I’ve said he does. But I think they’re mistaking the form of his arguments for the content, and I’m not sure they have read him. He talks about getting out of “the shade of Hegel,” rejecting an ontology of society that takes society to be a simple, single essence over and above it’s residents, and about how the real object of knowledge is a system of actual variations rather than ideas abstracted away from those variations. I can talk more about this later. In any case, again, reading abstract texts is important as educators and Althusser is worth the read. He’s also done some unsettling things, to say the least: like renounce his own work and possibly killed his wife. This is very hard for me to square, but I think a person’s writing might be a different thing than an action they commit later in life. Despite these things, his writing is extremely compelling and I agree with the way he reads Marx. So I read him.

So there’s our theoretical lens, which is the most difficult part of the course. Bowles and Gintis wrote a landmark study of how capitalism and schooling in America relate, so we’re going to read that and then apply what we’ve learned to contemporary issues. In the online class, we will focus on the social production of online learning, whereas in the face-to-face class we will focus on globalization and neoliberalism.

10 responses to “Opening Lecture Notes for Social Issues in Education

  1. Dear Dr. Backer,
    While I do not diametrically oppose the essence of what you have articulated, I do have concerns about the negative semantics rendered through some of your expressions. For example:
    • You speak of, “Making the social world less unjust…”, hmmm. Might we instead strive to make the world more just?
    • You propose a plan for, “CUTTING OUT THE MIDDLE PEOPLE “, but then go on to become a potential obstacle yourself by insinuating a lack of sophistication in your students when you blanketly proclaim, “What we’re going to read will be difficult. You will probably have a hard time with it … these texts are not pleasant”. For what reason would you burden your students with these pessimistic, off-putting, pre-conceived notions, when they could potentially be quite engaged and enthralled with deep philosophical tenets?
    • Stating, “If you make it through Capital and the Grundrisse and Althusser”… certainly doesn’t sound very encouraging or empowering, now does it? I can think of alternative – more positive – verbalizations to facilitate motivation.
    • You talk of profound-inquiry theories being, “pre-fab”, and how, “In this class, we cut out the middle man … and then come up with a theory based on your experience”. A cautionary thought may be to not so thoroughly reject the premise of all well-developed theories. Oftentimes, they are the springboard for brilliant new juxtaposed, as well as supportive theories. I sense some waffling within the blog, as you initially, summarily, disallow “pre-fab” conjectures, but later make a decision to require the reading of the Bowles and Gintis landmark study to, “apply what we’ve learned to contemporary issues.”
    • Yet again, your rhetoric takes a turn to the dark side, when you state, “It’s not easy to create those theories. It’s not pleasant. You’re going to feel like you have no idea what’s going on”. It seems your blog is straying from the philosophical to the psychologically abusive here. To my classmates, I will share this recommendation: Please try not to be intimidated by the negative proclamations of any individual, including educators. From years of firsthand experience, I can unequivocally say that reading Marx, Mao, et.al. can be invigorating; doing your own investigative research and making discoveries can be joyous; and deriving your own well-thought-out theories can be fun. To approach these with a negative mindset instead, might just be self-defeating.
    • And respectfully to you Dr. Backer, I ask this: If you truly want students to derive their own meaning from philosophers, why do you spend two paragraphs pontificating about your interpretations, which could potentially bias students’ own generative thoughts?
    • Furthermore, I agree with your statement, “Economics is not sufficient for thinking through society and how it changes. There’s race, gender, sexuality, language, nationality, territory, environment, religion, age, education, history, and ability. No one of these is sufficient, but they are all necessary for understanding social change. The lens you choose to examine and then justify social change will depend on your own proclivity, interest, and experience.” But then, in your closing statement you say, “In the online class, we will focus on the social production of online learning, whereas in the face-to-face class we will focus on globalization and neoliberalism.“ No real choice here, huh? For what reason do you choose different foci for the same course? Theoretically and philosophically speaking, do you not support student-choice methods to enhance student interest and promote higher engagement levels? Experience (not just pre-fab or self-promoted theories) has enlightened many a teacher to the benefits of student initiated choice in learning. Care for a re-consideration?
    Finally, I look forward to further – hopefully more positively engaging – discourse this term. Thank you for your efforts. Game on!

    P.S. – Regarding the Chicken-Egg/School-Capitalism relationship, you may enjoy viewing or re-viewing this classic TED talk video:
    http://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_changing_education_paradigms

    • Interesting thoughts Karen! Going to consider these seriously and reply in the coming days. Other thoughts, either in response to Karen or the notes themselves?

  2. Karen, love, love, love your comments and observations. Isn’t it always refreshing to hear the academia elite tell us how and what we should be thinking?!
    And Dave, regarding your parents over stressing the importance of good grades, good job, etc, you certainly saw fit to use their resources to help you attain a PhD but yet you moan about the benefits of their determined and hard work to help their child the best way they knew how. I would trade parents with you anyday. Your parents are most likely of the baby boomer generation. They were the children of the last world war. And your people suffered the most in that war. Capitalism may be the worst economic system known to man, but it is far better than anything else out there!

  3. In regards to the chicken and egg problem. “Does capitalism cause school to be a certain way, or is it school that causes society to be in a capitalist way “. Can I ask what your opinion is?

    • This is a great question. My honest opinion is that I don’t know. I’m still asking the question myself, which is how I typically structures courses (around questions that I don’t yet know what to say). On the one hand, I want the latter to be the case, because it would give us agency as teachers and students to change society. But on the other hand I can’t deny that there is some force that society exerts on schooling, teaching, learning, and studying. I’m hoping after this semester to have a better understanding of the question, and I’m looking forward to reading your blogposts, since they will most definitely help me cultivate that understanding..

  4. The opening lecture notes and comments that followed are a lot to digest. It sounds like the readings will be heavy. While there will be students who enjoy the research style readings there will be others who do not. Everyone will have their own interpretation of what is being said in the articles and if they agree or disagree with what the author is stating. The diversity of that is what makes the world go round. The world would not be where we are today if we all thought the same way. The important part to is respect and appreciate what others have to say.
    It seems like this class is going to challenge myself to look at education from different view points and hear a lot of different view points on education.

    • Yes I agree with you Molly, I am quite scared about the reading. I started reading Marx and was struggling. I am glad that it is supposed to feel like that and I think it will be exciting to create our own theories.

  5. The opening lecture notes were very useful at explaining what to expect this year and I relieved some stress that I was having from reading Marx. I was really struggling to read Marx, so it makes me feel better knowing that this is how it is supposed to feel. I am excited to be creating new knowledge. I also never thought about the relationship between capitalism and schooling, because our schooling system is very much an attempt at a socialist system as we are trying to make things equal (yet failing). I think because of these two contrasting systems we have so many problems in society and education in this country, but I probably do not know. I am hoping to learn in this class, thank you.
    I am a bit confused on our weekly assignments, some clarity on what is required would be appreciated. From what I understand we are to write our own blog each week (using the website we set up) and send out one tweet weekly. I also do not get when this is all due, “the first night of the week that the reading is due” So is the first blog post due January 20? Thanks

  6. I am a bit intimidated about the future readings, but also very excited to expand my thinking. I believe that listening to different thoughts and opinions is important should be taken advantage of. We can learn a lot from one another. If we disagree, we have an opportunity to become more self aware of our own, personal beliefs.

    I am a bit confused about our weekly assignments and due dates as well. Are the dates next to the assignment the day that they are due or the date of the week that we have to complete them? Did we need to complete a blog post and tweet last week?

  7. Hi Rachel and Tariq,

    I’m glad you’re looking forward to the course! The due dates for class will typically fall along the following rhythm:

    (1) At the beginning of the week (Monday/Tuesday), post on your blog about the reading.
    (2) Tweet in response to a classmate’s blog sometime during the week. I’ll check for the tweets at week’s end (Sunday).

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