Archive for November 30th, 2009

Teaching Values

Theodor Adorno of the Frankfurt school of critical theory said that the main goal of education should be to assure that the holocaust is never repeated.    Adorno and his colleagues were Jewish academics who were forced to flee Nazi Germany, and were shocked at the way in which their country fell into such barbarism.   How could this happen in Germany of all places — the country of the most advanced science, culture, and philosophy?

Andorno recognized that education should not just focus on methods and facts, but also values.  An education devoid of value development creates a population of individuals able to skillfully manipulate data and people to achieve their personal ends while rationalizing the human cost and consequences of their choices.    Instead of wisdom, we get sophistry.

Universities in general either push a mix of social political correctness (have minority students, use politically correct terms, and show sensitivity to ‘differences’) and practical political conformity (teach established theories, do not rock the boat of corporate sponsors, and buy into the theories that support the country’s elite structure).   It’s not like university professors are in a conspiracy to promote the corporate elite.    Rather, the way we’ve learned to teach and educate, by dint of the state of the disciplines (especially in social science), works against value education.    Rather than really questioning the nature of power and manipulation in the system students seek to become one of the powerful manipulators themselves.   Their goals are not malevolent, they simply believe they need to “play the game” in order to achieve the change they desire.  To be sure, there are always radicals out on a limb — the Noam Chomskys and various socialists or anarchists.   They are easily defined as an academic margin — the ‘fringe left.’

I take Adorno’s call seriously.   In my “World Politics” course we look at holocausts that have happened since Auschwitz, and how a world that said “never again” seems to have no problem allowing it again and again.   We examine how Communist utopianism led to genocide in Cambodia.   We study the Rwandan genocide and the heroic efforts of Canadian General Romeo Dallaire who led the UN mission in Rwanda.   The world watched a genocide unfold at a pace of killing faster than the holocaust, with UN observers right there telling the media and the world the gruesome details of what was happening.   The world yawned and looked away.   Students confront these cases having to think through difficult questions — should we have intervened?   But why should we ask a 20 year old American to get mixed up in someone else’s conflict?   What was the role of colonialism?  It ends up being a much more difficult problem than it originally seemed.

We also look at the world political economy that way, seeing the severe problems of the industrial West alongside the existential threats in the third world.   Students often respond with a mix of shock, anger and surprise that things like this go on in the world.   They’re not just learning theories about politics, but thinking about core human values.

My first year seminar “Germany Between the Wars,” covers the roaring Weimar mix of parties and crises to the rise of Nazism.   Students confront the fact that during the thirties the Nazis appeared successful; they can actually understand how the Germans would support them.   Many admit they might have too, knowing only what they might have known by 1936 or 1937.   They confront the power of manipulative propaganda, and then compare that with the way talk radio or the advertising industry in the US operates.   The realize that the mythic version of WWII told in the schools is only one side of a complex story.   They also learn and compare the war time experiences of Sophie Scholl and Traudl Junge, and explore why two women born the same year could think they were doing the right thing, but only one had clarity of vision.

The goal of the whole course is only partially to learn about German history (we explore art, science, music and politics during this era), but also to shake students up to realize that Hitler’s rise was not one of a maniac simply grabbing power, but a sophisticated movement which at one point appeared peaceful, successful and (to Charles Lindbergh and Joe Kennedy) a potential model the US could learn from.   To assure no more holocausts we need to learn that the danger from something like Nazism is that one only realizes too late how evil it is unless you have the moral and intellectual tools to see beneath the delusions they create.   That requires a willingness to question authority, not take claims by government (whatever party is in power) at face value, and avoid the emotional appeal of opposition movements claiming there are “conspiracies” to try to somehow destroy the country or its core foundational values.   It takes work and skill to avoid being manipulated.

In general, every course tries to do something to get at the human dimension of the relevant political issues and get students to empathize as well as intellectually understand a situation.  In The Politics of Developing Countries we look at how social science theories and the media ignore the role of gender and the ethical/human dilemmas the experiences of women raise.   Why it is that our current theoretical lenses leave these experiences out — what does that say about us and our values?    Ethics and values come as much from empathy than intellect; it entails a complexity that defies any clear set of rules.

So I like to think I am teaching in accord with Adorno’s dictum.   Yes, students learn political science theory, relevant facts, various authors, and the like.   They emerge prepared for law or graduate school, or any of the other professions they may choose after college.   But I hope that in some way my teaching tries to promote the development of critical value processing for students of all political, ideological or religious stripes.   I am not concerned about those who go through a difficult process of valuation and evaluation, and ultimately choose differently than I do on the issues of the day.  I am concerned about those who get manipulated by the media and political leaders into thinking they are doing what is right and just, without the will or capacity to critically reflect on their choices and beliefs.

Luckily my colleagues across the campus seem to share these values, recognizing that education is not just teaching students how to win, but how to make choices they can be proud of.    The need to help students “make good choices” is just as relevant in college as in Kindergarten.