Is my education sucking my will to revolt?

Over the past week or so, I have grown deeply introspective and somewhat self-critical in the aftermath of my visceral response to the actions and words of one person.  First, some history of my own thought is in order.

After dropping out of college in 2000, I found myself caught in a strange holding pattern of the mind, characterized by a mixture of equally strong parts of intelligence, curiosity, moral certitude, and lack of a formal higher education (which brings with it a lack of critical self-appraisal of one’s own ideas).  Upon this mental state was founded multiple philosophical discourses (which I now consider to be important keepsakes of my intellectual past), a propensity to blame capitalism and corporations for society’s ills, and a general frustration with people in positions of authority.  Not long before my ex-wife and I separated,   I had joined a rather innocuous socialist party, whose intellectual grounding was nevertheless attractive to me.  Its membership was comprised of maybe 20 or so very well-read Marxists; it was so small because the party’s exclusionary membership application process (eight in-depth questions covering everything from party politics to religious sentiments) limited its size and scope.  It was, in the end, a place for intellectuals to register their desire for revolutionary change without feeling pressure to really do anything about it.  That was me, in a nutshell. 

My stint as a Marxist led me to an ironical major and career path:  economics.  It was with the intention of raising holy hell about capitalism that I enrolled in a Principles of Macroeconomics class at my local community college, my first time back at school in three years.  Instead of finding reason to be belligerent, I was impressed by the explanatory power, by the grasp of the enormously complex problems that markets create and solve. 

When I finally returned to Mary Washington College a year later, I was still very much on a rebellious streak inspired by anger at the injustice I perceived around me, yet I found myself weaned off of anti-capitalistic sentiments by economics.  I began to look for still more radical, holistic viewpoints of the world, which I found in a campus group of anarchists.  Still, with time, I began to lose my interest in radical politics all together.  I perceived the solution(s) to society’s injustices to be too complicated to be broached by any one political or economic ideological system.  My association with the anarchist group tapered off more and more as my interest in philosophy and economics increased.  In general, I consider my movement from radicalism to quiet observation and critique (both of my own ideas and the ideas of others’) to be a positive change.  However, there are two tendencies of mine that recent events have brought to my attention, both of which make me wonder if I have strayed too far. 

First, the economic way of thinking (as I have constructed it based on my classes) renders me prone to divorce my notions of justice from my notions of practical possibility.  I see “economic growth” as a phenomenon that is disturbed by legislative attempts to redistribute wealth or power, and I have thereby bought into the notion of “trickle-down” economics, as pundits might call it.  Poverty, racism, classism, increasing inequality of wealth, rampant disaffection with the political system – these things no longer affect me as they once did, and no longer inspire me to revolt against the norm.  Though I started off questioning others’ authority, I was eventually persuaded to question my own authority, and now I find myself defending the activities of the wealthy and powerful in society in the hope that this will somehow see the end to all the world’s problems.  I feel as if I’m stuck choosing the lesser of two evils:  support the powerful, or advocate the redistribution of wealth and all the difficulties that presents.  In the end, I have chosen the former. 

Second, and related to the first, I have stopped questioning out loud.  When I first got into economics, as I said, I was astounded by the explanatory power.  Nonetheless, a lot about the field bothered me:  the implicitly normative nature of homo economicus, the ethnocentrism I discovered in neoclassical and even the more tractable members of the heterodox economics, and the arrogance of economists who seemed to suppose that since policy-makers listened to them, their explanations of phenomena were the best.  I eventually found, however, that constantly arguing these points was exhausting and disruptive of class, and I stopped questioning the subject matter out loud.  I took my problems to professors’ offices, or utilized research projects to look for answers to my objections.  I bought in to the analytical frameworks that my professors were laying out, while simultaneously attempting to remain aloof of the dogmatic traps that devotion to any “way of thinking” laid in my path. 

I think I ultimately failed in this endeavor, or have very nearly failed.  The “shut up and listen” approach I took to the classroom was an attempt to learn how to look at social phenomena through the “objective” lens of economics while still hanging on to the notions of justice, or human nature, or whatever, that I held onto in my head.  In the process, however, I have allowed the practical explanatory power of economics to stretch beyond the purely positivistic, to the point where I now use it in a normative way.  The economic perspective has become my perspective, and in the process I have become as myopic as that of which I was once very critical

It is oh-so-tempting to blame systems for the world’s or even one’s own problems – capitalism, the educational system, government, what have you.  What I have learned in college is a few different methods that I can use to analyze phenomena under the conditions and within the constraints that systems set up.  In the process, however, I seem to have forgotten (or worst of all, ceased to care) about whether the system itself is viable for what its proponents and beneficiaries seek.  “Cui bono?” is a question I have failed to ask more and more often. 

What’s more, I feel… cowed by the relatively comfortable lifestyle promised me by my achievements at this institution and those in the future to come.  Like I’m becoming a support beam for a system I don’t really agree with (at least in terms of the spread between its promises and its fruits).  It’s not a feeling I enjoy.  It’s not that I want to be an anarchist again, or a Christian, or a libertarian, or whatever.  I don’t think the answers to my questions are to be found in an ideology.  But neither are they to be found in tacit collusion with authorities, up to and including – sometimes – the professors whom I respect and admire.  The inner push I have felt to beat my professors at their own game has converted me to their perspective, but not with my conscious approval, and that bothers me. 

So while I stand by the words published in today’s school newspaper, I worry that in doing so I am being hypocritical.  There is something to be said for being a pain in your professor’s ass.  There is something to be said for remaining aloof of dogma not only in your head, but also by speaking out in public, because the public will hold you to your word.  They will expect you to differ, and they will look to you for an alternate explanation, whether they (or you!) buy into it or not.  Even if your classmates seem to think you’re an idiot, speaking out keeps you from settling down, and if done respectfully but insistently it keeps those around you from feeling too comfortable with their personal justification for the world around them.  That can only be a good thing. 

You don’t need to be a revolutionary to think critically about what you hear in class; something is wrong if you experience no cognitive dissonance with respect to what your teachers tell you, because that means you’re not learning anymore – you’re just memorizing.  You should learn how experts think, but you should also expect them to think like beginners, you should insist that they be on their toes.  The classroom should be dynamic, and that dynamism can only derive from the conflict that learners can and incite.  Read, discuss, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate everything that you can.  See if the experts are so diligent.  If they are… that’s a teacher whose class you should never miss.  

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One Response to “Is my education sucking my will to revolt?”

  1. Jim Says:

    Isaac,

    Finally stumbled upon your blog took my long enough, and I have to say it is intense, amazingly reflective, and extremely thoughtful. I find myself connecting with you on so many points you make so eloquently about th revolutionary spirit, ideology, and some kind of intense consideration of the choices one makes about their particular world view and the action that might accompany any such position.

    Consider me subscribed, and I already have a ton to read.

    Great stuff.

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