31 January 2011

Why ideologues should not be teachers

Okay, rant time. Any of my readers who disapprove of me when I go straight into ranting mode, please stop reading now.

I’m still in somewhat a state of denial about this experience. Part of me is screaming that what just happened did not, cannot, must not have happened at one of the premier graduate institutions aimed at producing independent, critical professionals in the field of public policy. But my eyes and ears did not deceive me. My ‘Political Economy of Property Rights’ course really did just happen, and what time was not spent covering the theoretical basics of institutional change was pretty much a sustained ideological harangue by my professor on the evils of Congress and government intervention in the American West. Of course, it seems, the government is to be blamed for every failure of the Forest Service to protect public forests, yet no mention was made of the successes of the National Parks and Monuments system or the initiatives of Mr Theodore Roosevelt, because those were obvious flukes. All official aid, following an extreme interpretation of the arguments of Mr William Easterly, is a failure and no countries ever recovered as a result – and the Marshall Plan was, naturally, useless because Germany and Japan were going to recover anyway and were in no danger of succumbing to Mr Joseph Stalin at all. Sarcasm aside, I fully admit that my poor eyes began to glaze over when the professor made a completely uncritical and unironic endorsement of the crank notions of one Mr Friedrich Hayek.

The entire spat between Sachs and Easterly, which I mentioned awhile back, strikes me as yet another iteration of the antics of Hudge and Gudge, GK Chesterton’s sadly-neglected parody of the extreme ideologies of state and market, respectively. It should come as no surprise that I’m no great fan of either one. And I’m immensely sorry to say it, but I’m afraid my professor seems to have followed to a ‘T’ the characterization of Gudge. I am rather embarrassed for my institution of higher learning to recount that the theoretical and historical objections I raised were hand-waved away, with a politeness that failed to dull the rather obvious sting of condescension. I felt that my ears must have been deceiving me when my professor declaimed that it was not a good idea to be too critical of neoliberalism and (what amounts to) oligopoly, as though said ideology and its defenders had not been in the business of justifying the pillage and pollution of the lands of ordinary folk (whether Native Americans or of small farmers in the American East), passing off said desecration as a positive good!

I was never convinced, of course, that Gudgeans would make good teachers – now I am quite convinced of the contrary. Having had several Hudgean teachers in my time, I am not altogether easy with the idea that they are that much better. Though they do light on some good ideas from time to time (like the idea that men and women should be equal in importance), the way they tend to organise said ideas often leads them into saddening self-caricatures (like what feminism has sadly become and the ease with which it accepts neoliberal assumptions about human nature, which do not empower women). I think it is telling that among my greatest academic influences was my eighth-grade history teacher, Ms Angela Abbott: who deliberately took a contrarian line on United States history in challenge to the reigning narrative, in order to get us to question our own assumptions about the way the world worked.

Naturally, I have no intention of turning into a crank myself – I hope it is not too late for that. But I’m starting to find it an increasingly urgent calling to begin articulating an alternative to these most recent iterations of Hudgeanism and Gudgeanism; one which takes into account not just economic but spiritual wellbeing, and one grounded in the liberating, revolutionary social call-to-arms of the Gospel. And if ever I do end up returning to teaching, rest assured that I will endeavour never to dismiss the criticisms of my own students!

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