Saturday, March 5, 2011

Confronting Post-Modernism and Conservatism

Having just spent five years at college and university (2005-2010), I had too many professors and classroom colleagues to whom I was expected to show respect as they advocated my demise. Government regulations were merely some obvious consequences of a much deeper evil. 

Ayn Rand said, "I am not primarily an advocate of capitalism, but of egoism; and I am not primarily an advocate of egoism, but of reason. If one recognizes the supremacy of reason and applies it consistently, all the rest follows."  I first read that in 1967.  So, when I had a graduate class in criminology theory in which the required readings were post-modernist philosophy - the senses are invalid; logic is a sham; reality is socially-defined: Philosophy, Crime, and Criminology by Arrigo and Williams - I was well-prepared. 

As with most classes, of the 20 or so in the room, only about five were active participants.  I know from my first university class in criminology that many do not speak up because they know that their conservative views will be argued down by the professor.  The professor commands the classroom in many ways.  The prof can take five or 50 minutes to make a point.  A student has maybe 20 seconds.  So, when I say "the class" it is not necessarly true that everyone was in accord.  With that caveat, the class nodded along with the claim that there is no absolute right and wrong, that morality is socially constructed, usually by the ruling class for its interests, that different societies have different values, all equally valid, that imperialism and sexism (including hegemonic masculinity) denigrates these other perspectives,. etc., and of course that ultimately any absolute knowledge is impossible.

Then, a woman who worked for the sheriff's department spoke up and denounced Bernard Madoff.  The failures of his investment house impacted our county's unfortunates who were now denied non-governmental aid, especially mental health services, because those charities had invested with Madoff and now were without funds.

I raised my hand.  Wouldn't the sociological perspective include the fact that these Wall Street capitialists have their own society with their own rules?  These fund managers were in the same league with Madoff. These were not little people, but professionals, so if they got cheated, that is just an outcome in their world, equally valid for them. 

Of course there were dissenting noises from actual words to groans to raised hands.  "Wait a minute!" I begged.  "So, there is a difference between right and wrong."  (Silence.)  There is a difference between right and wrong and you can know the difference between right and wrong. 

The discussion moved on.  The professor delineated two schools of post-modernism, his and the authors'.  I was satisfied that I made my point, even if no one was persuaded into an understanding they did not come in with. 

That, too, was a classroom lesson for me. 

The previous semester, I had a class in international economics.  The professor was a Marxist, one of the old school who believed that economics and history are sciences.  Most of the class were foreign students.  The largest fraction (6/20) were from China, but about a third were from Muslim/Arab countries.  Three were from different subSaharan nations.  The rest were from here and here; and three of us were Americans. One American was on the far left.  I held the right wing.  Most of the class were arrayed near the center.  These were business majors, largely, but populists and democrats, nonetheless.

One week, the subject was extractive industries.  Even my capitalist limits were tested by the stories of these Fortune 500 B-School looters who cozy up to dictators, strip the minerals, and leave the peoples and the lands worse off.  There was another subject that week as well.  As a graduate class, the workload was non-trivial.  I wrote on the other subject.  When the papers were handed back, the professor said that he was dismayed and disappointed.  Apparently, several people wrote about the good things these companies do, the roads, hospitals and schools they build.  It was not what he expected at all.

To me, the lesson was that people have their own ideas.  You can find agreement, or not.  Actually bringing new information that changes someone -- the teaching moment -- is rare. 

No one comes to a college or university with no ideas.  Mostly, we absorb what we learned at home.  Sometimes, new learning by young people awakens new processes.  But today's university students are not necessarily recent high schoolers away from home for the first time.  Education in America is driven by mature learners. The consequences of that remain to be seen as one generation replaces another in the stream.  For the present, I have to deny the complaints of conservatives, libertarians, and objectivists that college professors brainwash students, propagandizing them with barrages of falsehoods.  After one such session in Sociology 101, leaving the building, behind me on the stairwell were two girls, a full generation or more younger than I.  Said one to the other in a nattering tone of voice, "America sucks, America sucks, week after week it's the same stuff: America sucks."  Obviously, she was not buying what the instructor was selling.  She had ideas of her own to begin with; and change them as she might, that choice would be hers.


  1. I think that for most people, what they believe comes from the adults they grew up with as a default, but they are largely regurgitating what their elders have told them until they begin thinking for themselves.

    I remember having many conversations where I simply repeated the opinions of my parents and professors. I regarded everything they said as truth until well after college, when I became interested in figuring out how the world works on my own.

    I think some people never move from accepting expert opinions to thinking for themselves, and professors like mine, teaching Marxist economics, are a danger to those people. Most people accept the opinions of experts as fact for their entire lives.

  2. Sociologists (especially criminologists) have identified many kinds of differential association and differential learning and differential reinforcement to show how we learn from those around us. Only some few people ever break free from that. Marxism is easy to accept because we hear so much of it from so many sources - greed is bad; businesses cheat people; Wall Street versus Main Street; etc, etc. That said, I have had good professors, who, while Marxists, were intellectually fair and honest, and dismayed by those who seemed unwilling to get behind or beyond their own accepted beliefs. Those, professors, too, where within that minority of individuals who seek beyond the given.

    You will find an essay here on NecessaryFacts, "When Evidence is Not Enough." We tend to accept experts who agree with us, to accept them as experts because they agree with what we want to believe.


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