The perils of pedagogy

Aug 20, 2020

The government hates social scientists and our views often do little to improve the mental well-being of students. Should we shut up to protect our self-interest and keep our version of the truth from our students to protect them?

These are trying times for those of us fortunate enough to make a living teaching in universities. It’s not unreasonable to suggest that the current government loathes the social sciences and (especially) the humanities. Its selective use of market signals is explicitly designed to encourage students to take up ‘useful’ degrees rather than being led astray by self-indulgent whingers woefully out of touch with the real world.

If such stereotypes were ever true, they’re not now. Academic jobs, especially the rapidly diminishing entry level variety, are insecure and exploitative. Spending years in poverty while you complete your PhD no longer looks like a good investment. There’s not much of a market for ‘critical thinkers’, especially when critical is synonymous with complaining about public policy, rather than independent thought.

This is, of course, no reason for shutting up. On the contrary, informed critiques of the failure—even dangers—of government policy are arguably more important than ever, especially when much of the mainstream media can’t be relied on to do so. And yet there may be other reasons for those of us charged with educating the coming generation to consider what we say and whether we should actually say it.

It’s no longer controversial to argue that climate change may be the greatest challenge and threat that the human race has ever faced. In this context, the Coalition government’s policies have been woefully inadequate and are clearly contributing to a problem that will affect Australia more directly and disastrously than just about anywhere else on the planet.

While many might agree that government policy is appallingly short-sighted, hostage to vested interests, and certain to have catastrophic consequences in the not too distant future, is this a reason to bang on about it in the lecture theatre? Given that students in their late teens or early twenties are in no position to directly influence policy, is it helpful to pile on the misery at what is supposed to be one of the more enjoyable periods of their lives?

This may not be a dilemma everyone in my position suffers from, and perhaps there really is an imperative to ‘tell it like it is’, and leave young minds in no doubt about what’s happening to the natural environment in which they will live out their lives. But is speaking truth the comparatively powerless serving any purpose?

I don’t have a plausible answer for resolving the environmental problems we collectively face. Given the implacable time frame cooperative social, political and economic action of an unimaginable and unprecedented variety looks highly unlikely. Indeed, I don’t have any confidence in our ability to arrest global warming before it inflicts catastrophic damage on us and the rest of the planet—absent an implausible social revolution, at least.

One option is to spell this out in painful and plausible detail to students and add to their widely documented mental health problems, anxiety and sense of hopelessness about the future. To be clear, my reading of the literature and the likely trajectory of environmental development leads me to think that we really are on the proverbial ‘end of civilisation as we know it’, and that my students will live to see what that actually looks like.

While I hope to be proved wrong and that ‘something will turn up’ to save us, I really don’t see any grounds for plausible optimism. If Covid-19 hasn’t done anything else, it’s given us a glimpse of an alternative more sustainable world, but one that is plainly not compatible with an endlessly expansionary global capitalist system. Going back to business as usual will only hasten our descent into the abyss.

In such circumstances is it actually useful for people in my position to say what we actually think about this? After all, perhaps some technological wonder will turn up. Perhaps the New Deal will work. Perhaps Greta Thunberg will become the next Secretary General of the United Nations. Perhaps pigs really will defy gravity.

People tell me that someone in my position has to offer hope and optimism. Yet even if everyone in the world suddenly decided that the climate scientists really were right about the problems and what we need to do about them, I’m not sure we’d be able to transform the way we organise a world with 7—let alone 11—billion people on it, most of whom want to live like me.

To say I’m conflicted about this would be an understatement. I don’t want to depress my students, but I don’t want to let incompetent, self-interested or simply stupid leaders off the hook either. There’s possibly never been a greater need for critical thinking, nor a more hostile, un-receptive environment for its cultivation.

But if all you’ve got to offer is a footnoted version of ‘the end is nigh’, perhaps it really is best to just shut up and let the youngsters gather rosebuds while they may. That’s what I’d be doing if I was their age.

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