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Teaching Social Problems: Do We Measure Up?

15 Dec Posted by in Academics, Observations | 2 comments
Teaching Social Problems: Do We Measure Up?

As some of my readers know, Mason has taken a lead in organizing several international universities around key global problems. We’re also participating in the United Nations compact, which calls attention to issues in the environment, corruption, labor rights, and human rights. While we’re still working on our agendas in these arenas, we can take real pride in levels of interest among faculty and students alike.

In the process of thinking about these aspects of global citizenship, it occurs to me to wonder whether we’re doing enough to work with our students on the domestic versions of some of these same problem sets. I know that groups of students are deeply socially conscious, but I’m not sure of our adequacy overall. The result is not a certainty that we’re falling short, but some questions.

Thus in the global arena: students (here and internationally) turn quite readily to environmental issues, and I don’t think there’s any doubt that those concerned are aware that the problems are partly American; global and national go hand in hand. I’m less sure of this on the human rights side: we can readily point to rights abuses against women or political dissenters elsewhere, but are we as well informed about issues around the corner? about the disproportionate percentage of Americans in prison, for example? The same may hold even more for corruption, where we may not be adequately informed even globally but where we do tend to think of issues elsewhere rather than holding up a domestic mirror.

Then there’s the huge question of poverty, and the issues of disease and helplessness that accompany it. Again, we know something about conditions elsewhere (though possibly not enough). Do we guide and involve students sufficiently on the growing range of issues in our national midst?

In all this I’m not trying to argue that there are not some problems that are worse in other countries than in the United States, and I’m certainly not trying to turn attention away from the global and back to the local alone. And, finally, I’m certainly not trying to convey a partisan agenda: I’m talking about awareness of problems, not a commitment to one particular set of solutions or approaches. All this said, I think it’s valid to assess our curricula and our co-curricular programs to make sure that students gain a suitably nuanced sense of the national landscape.

Even my own discipline of history may have some facing up to do. We do, to be sure, maintain an active commitment to teach students a more varied approach to the national past than is frequently conveyed in high school – it’s a key part of our role in promoting critical thinking. But as we have moved away from some of the classic excitement about social history – the excitement on which I was teethed as a graduate student – we have dropped some of the systematic attention to issues like poverty and social class that used to link the discipline to an examination of some basic issues where past conditions help shape present liabilities. In the process we’ve turned more to probing areas like gender or culture, where findings remain rich but which can distract from some of the concerns that used to guide us.

Again, I welcome feedback here: maybe we’re doing just fine, educationally, and I’m just insufficiently aware. But I do wonder if – among other things, in the current enthusiasm for education that leads to jobs and downgrades the social sciences and humanities – we should not be taking our temperature in this arena somewhat more regularly and self-critically.