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The significance of questioning: What questions must students ask their educators, and why?

 

 

By Raju J Das

September 19, 2020 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — Given the enormous problems that humanity is facing, it is reasonable to expect to see a future society that is radically different from, and superior to, the current one, that is a society that is genuinely democratic in the economic and non-economic spheres of life.[1] And to produce a better society, we need better ideas, even if ideas are surely not enough. Furthermore, to learn good ideas, it is important to ask good questions.[2] In this context, one might consider students in colleges and universities more specifically. Their active participation in the learning process is crucial to their intellectual success. Such participation can come in many forms, one of which is asking the educators probing questions. So for both intellectual and practical reasons, it is important that students ask good questions. 

Students must ask important questions

The question is: what sorts of questions should students ask their educators?[3]  A few of these questions are presented below.

  1. Where exactly do you stand on the question of private property in the means of production (e.g. land, mines, factories, labs, “knowledge”)?[4] 

  2. Do you think that the means of production should be collectively controlled by men and women of different races and nationalities who perform the manual and/or mental labor to produce the things/services that society needs for its reproduction?

  3. What is the main form of social division in the current society? Is that division based on property or something else? What intellectual rationale do you provide for your view, and what political conclusions do you draw from them?

  4. Do you think that the means of production are to be used to meet human needs rather than to produce profit? 

  5. Do you think that the means of production are to be used, and society should be run, in ways that are ecologically sustainable and that counter the tendencies towards geographically uneven development within and across countries, as well as those tendencies towards social-cultural oppression, curtailment of democratic rights, imperialism/neo-colonialism, war, and fascism?

  6. It is admirable that professors talk about specially oppressed groups such as women (even if they are often middle class type women) and racialized minorities (often from middle class background). But when it comes to class relations (broadly, the relations of exploitation of the property-less by the propertied), why is there almost always a quasi-silence, or evasion?

  7. And, in the unlikely case of class as a concept coming up for discussion in a class-room, 

    1. Why is it that class is seen in terms of, say, less or more income, or seen in terms of cultures/habits of different classes? 

    2. Why is it that class is seen as no more causally important than any other process?

    3. How justified is it that capitalist class relations are not the dominant influence on our lives because people engage in non-wage-labour (for example, they practice community gardens or look after each other’s children)?[5] 

    4. Why is it that if some smart student raises the dirty “c word” (class), he/she is accused of classism, and many other bad things (“too rigid”, “economistic”, etc.)? 

    5. Is it not true that the majority of the world's men and women are those who have little/no property and who therefore must work for a wage and/or as petty producers? 

    6. Are the world’s major problems not dominantly rooted in the economic and political relation between those who control property and those (the majority) who do not? 

    7. While in nearly every academic social science and humanities course there are loads of readings and discussions on this and that identity, this or that “problem” of this or that part of society, including the environment and its animals/birds, and its many inanimate objects, why is it that the problem behind the problems – the problem of class and capitalism-as-a-form-of-class – receives the least amount of emphasis? Why are topics of courses so narrowly construed? Must the courses in social sciences and humanities not be about the totality of society to a significant extent? 

  8. How do you see society’s institutions?

    1. Can the state and (bureaucratically-controlled pro-business) workers’ unions, NGOs, and local community organizations durably and significantly resolve society’s contradictions manifested in the problems such as low wages and endemic unemployment? 

    2. Can these institutions help us produce a new society, which is beyond the rule of money and capital? And if not, why not, and what is to be done about this? 

    3. Is the state fundamentally neutral in relation to the basic classes, i.e. in relation to those who control productive resources and those who do not? Is its fundamental role not to preserve the existing property relations by the use of force and/or the threat of force?

  9. A university should be a place for all sorts of perspectives.[6] Professors can be from the right or center, etc. It is important to respect academic freedom. But do students not have the right to know where their professors stand, intellectually?[7] They do. Students might therefore ask many questions to their educators: 

    1. Do you believe that society is a harmonious place, that what has been happening traditionally should be allowed to continue, that people should look after themselves, that one is free to die because of the lack of means of subsistence, and that everything should be left to the hidden hand of the market (the ideas of the right)?

    2. Do you believe that things should be more or less left to the market but when market failures occur, governments should intervene, and that governments should also, to some extent, look after the poor and the marginalized (the liberal ideas)? 

    3. If governments should intervene, what is the outer limit of such intervention? Can you imagine political regulation of capitalism (by the state and workers’ unions) beyond social democracy, or is social democracy (combination of social democracy and individual-level action) the outer limit of your politics? 

  10. More specifically: what is your preferred form of social arrangement? 

    1. Do you imagine a society that is a slightly better capitalism (i.e. a capitalism, where there is slightly more economic and geographical equality, and where there is much less oppression of women and racialized and other minorities, and where there is much less ecological damage)?

    2. Or do you imagine a society that is fundamentally different from the existing one, a future society that is beyond the rule of capital, where there is economic and political democracy, and where productive resources are controlled by common people? And what intellectual rationale can you provide for your preference?[8]

    3. And if society has to change in fundamental ways, which social group is the most important agent in such a project? 

Academic honesty demands that professors clearly state their stance on these questions, so one can relate their stance to all the things that they say in the classroom.[9]  

  1. What sorts of philosophical views do you hold?

    1. Do you think that there are things in the world (e.g. stock market, built environment, forests, factories, etc.) that are independent of how we think about them; that things are more or less not social-mental constructions? 

    2. What do you make of the idea that men and women must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before they can engage in politics, science, art, religion, watch movies on Netflix, and give lectures, and that therefore material conditions in life – the totality of such “things” including our interaction with nature, social production of “things” we need and the unequal relations within which such production happens – are the primary explanation of things happening in our lives, even while material conditions are affected by other aspects of society? 

    3. Why do you often assume that social processes happen on the head of a pin? Why indeed is university instruction often so geographically parochial? Why is there not enough critical geographical imagination?

    4. With respect to the latter point: why is it that in so many college and university courses, social processes in certain regions of the world (for example, Western Europe and North America) are often – no matter how implicitly – taken as the norm, while there is little conscious attempt to take “a multi-scalar internationalist” approach, the idea that social processes happen at local, regional, national and international scales, with the international scale – world market – having a causal primacy; that what happens in “Western societies” is deeply connected to what happens in the global periphery (where, by the way, most of the world’s people live), and vice versa, and that there is geographical unevenness in nearly everything that human beings experience as a product of the “interaction” between universal (a-spatial) mechanisms and place-specific mechanisms? 

    5. Philosophically speaking, one’s social position does have an impact on one’s ideas: “social being” sets limits on one’s “consciousness” (including one’s conception of one’s self and others). Given that often professors are middle class men and women from cities, it is important to ask: to what extent is their instruction shaped by this fact, that is by (urban) middle class concerns? To what extent do academic courses on society really deal with the lives of common men and women from rural and urban areas?[10]

    6. Academia is full of critical this and critical that (e.g. critical sociology, critical human geography, critical business studies, etc). What does critique mean to you and why are the philosophical and social-theoretical reasons for critique?[11] Why is critique often confined to critique of special oppression rather than critique of the total society or social totality – capitalism? And when there is any critique of capitalism, why is it that critique is often confined to the (rather mild) critique of neoliberalism (a specific form of capitalism) rather than capitalism as such? Is the scope of your critique confined to the critique of those aspects of society which, in your own view, can be changed (a little)? What do you make of the idea that at this current stage of human society, changing the parts requires changing the whole?

Importance of the questions

These are not merely political questions. They are deeply theoretical (explanatory) questions: to explain anything in the world, one has to examine the issues surrounding control over property, the state, nature of people’s collective agency as it is rooted in relations of production and exchange, and so on. To be able to explain the world, one has to agree that there are objectively-existing structures of relations and processes, whose contingent reproduction is then influenced by how people think and act, and that things in our life are not creations of thought, although ideas can play an important role in social change. In explaining anything – immigration, fishing, global warming, deforestation, body, conditions of indigenous people, pandemics, etc. – one has to relate them to the wider totality of which they are parts. But then, do educators believe in the idea of a totality? Most do not. 

Often society is divided by professors into numerous groups (e.g. women, refugees, “mad people”, people in jail, heterosexual people, etc.), without the recognition that they can be interrelated in terms of the conditions under which they live their lives; that each of these groups is connected to the overall social-material (class) character of society of which they are a part, and that the criterion that is used to define each of these groups is rooted in the ways in which society operates and reproduces itself through its relations of production and exchange and through the political system and cultural mechanisms of producing consent to the system. In other words, there is little recognition of the fact that by studying a given group (or indeed a given place), one can say something about the totality of which the group (or the place) is a part. Perhaps underlying this sectoral and parochial approach is the political principle that the society as a whole cannot be changed and that only this or that small part of it can be changed, and only in relatively small ameliorative ways.

To understand anything properly, one has to have a theory, because it is theory that helps one connect the different parts of society to another, and to produce a coherent picture of society. But do most educators even believe in the need for theory? Many are just keen on their students to go and see the world for themselves. Alas, without a theory, one will see many things without really seeing anything (much). 

It is essential for students to educate their educators 

Students must therefore demand that they be taught rigorous theory of society as a whole and theory of specific parts of society (e.g. child poverty or women’s oppression), as well as theory of theorizing (i.e. philosophy, including ontology and epistemology). They must demand that a large part of every course they take must deal with critical issues surrounding the materiality of capitalist society that we live in and its politics, and the philosophical issues of materialism and dialectics. 

They have got every right to know where their professors stand theoretically and politically. They have the right to demand that the courses they take equip them with the theoretical tools which would prompt them to ask the type of questions posed above. Students must demand that the scope of pedagogical diversity be expanded beyond identity politics and decolonization; the scope of courses, readings, lectures and classroom discussions must be widened so the kind of questions that are posed above can be addressed in a collegial atmosphere. Society is dominated by relations and processes of capitalist production and exchange which necessarily lead to imperialism, so the dominant emphasis in the academic courses should be on the capitalist character of society, which reproduces itself partly by feeding into divisions based on gender, race, sexual orientation and so on, and partly through various retrograde cultural mechanisms. Academic courses should help students critically theorize the totality of capitalist society – in its five major dimensions (economic, political, cultural, ecological and geographical), and to empirically study it, both from the standpoint of describing and explaining it and thus finding an order in society, and radically transcending it.

Students must reject the idea that the education system's main roles are to: a) provide technical and organizational skills to students so they can increase production and surplus (profit, interest, rent, etc.) for the business class, and b) provide ideas that dissuade the majority from demanding control over production and the surplus, as well as control over the communal affairs of society (currently managed by politicians and officials wedded to the interest of the rich). The basic purpose of knowing is to know what is happening and why, so one can take action to create a different future. Technical and other such skills are important. All forms of society need to expand production. But production happens, and can only happen, within certain historically-specific relations of production, and these relations are currently unequal, exploitative and oppressive. So there is a need to explore the character of these relations. 

Academia appears to be other than what it is, just as society dominated by capital does; thus there is a contradiction between what is real and what appears to be real.[12] Our teachers/professors usually do not encourage us to ask difficult questions which might reveal the contradiction. But educators must be educated. Educators with a sense of humility should like to be educated by their students. Students must assume the role of educators on a regular basis. An inversion in roles is needed on a regular basis, so education becomes an act of collaboration. This is especially at the graduate (Masters and doctoral) level.

Students must take responsibility for their own education. They could, for example, form reading groups and read certain books/articles/blogs and discuss certain topics on their own.[13] The rationale for this would be that such readings and topics are excluded – or are only given lip service – in a classroom. Another major source of education is, of course, students’ intent to change the society, and, where possible, their actual participation in the process of change – both on campus and off-campus. An important part of this politics must be a demand that no person remains unemployed and that everyone receives an appropriate compensation, and that the commodification and creeping corporate control over education and its bureaucratization as well as mixing of religion and religion-based politics and education, must stop at once. Education is a human need, and it must be met without the mediation of the market or government interference. The fact that, after years of education, which often lands many students in huge debt, the majority of students will remain un- or under-employed, this material fact does adversely impact their learning process.[14] After all, one has to eat, drink, have shelter, clothing and medicine and access to transportation, etc. before one can fruitfully engage in the learning process. The demand for a satisfactory education and the demand for improved material conditions are closely linked. 

Conclusion

There is no illusion that when students begin to take responsibility for their education partly by organizing their own reading group meetings, some members of the academic community will criticize them for engaging in intellectual activities that do not conform to the norm. When that happens, one should know that one is doing something right, so just ignore the criticisms and invite the critics to the meetings.[15] It is possible, and indeed necessary, for students to educate themselves partly outside of the normal classroom and to connect the two spheres to see the relation between their learning and their passionate intent grounded in reason and evidence, to see a fundamentally different world. And, as and when students take partial responsibility for their education, there are teachers who will join them as their friends and co-learners. It is true that many will not support such activities. But then who says that the appropriateness of an action necessarily depends on how many people accept the idea of such an action? 

Raju J Das is a professor at the Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change, York University, Toronto, Canada. Email: rajudas@yorku.ca

Notes

[1] On the conception of such a society, see: Das, R. J. 2020. ‘Human suffering during the pandemic and the need for a new society’, Links: International Journal of Socialist Renewal; http://links.org.au/human-suffering-during-pandemic-need-new-society

[2] And, of course, questioning is a medium through which we begin to oppose the current system, fully keeping in mind that questioning merely at the level of discursive practice is not enough. 

[3] One should ask these questions to one’s students, parents, partners, friends, newspaper editors, TV anchors, government and trade union officers and community activists, etc. as well.

[4] Note that a major contradiction in our society is between the vast majority with little or no control over the means of production, and a small minority which do.

[5] On a detailed critical discussion on how academics talk about class, and on an alternative theory of class, see Das, R. 2017. Marxist class theory for a skeptical world. Leiden/Boston: Brill.

[6]  I would add a caveat: the university must not provide a platform for fascistic ideas. Fascistic people must not be allowed to propagate their extreme disregard for democratic rules by using society’s institutions.

[7] There is no need for professors to reveal their electoral preferences.

[8] Note: for most academic educators, the choice is the former, and this choice affects everything they do and say, but they undemocratically hide their belief/choice.

[9] Consider how professors often begin an academic event, say, in Canada, with an indigenous land acknowledgement, the recognition that an academic institution is situated on the land taken from indigenous peoples. There is nothing wrong with this. But such a routine practice isolated from actual political action to improve the material lives of indigenous peoples means relatively little, and it indeed valorizes a) the conflation of political action with discursive/linguistic practice, and b) the abstraction from the world of work and production and the lives of workers: if educational buildings – as temples/churches and parliament buildings, etc. – have been established on the land taken away from indigenous peoples, all this has also happened on the back of people as workers. 

It is important to consistently acknowledge that academic work itself is fundamentally based on the work of, and the social surplus produced by, ordinary and suffering men and women (including, by the way, from indigenous communities) – in the mines, on the farms, factories, call centers, labs, etc. And it is important to reflect on the implications for teaching and learning of that acknowledgement, and to bear in mind that such acknowledgement must then be connected to the need for wider political action necessary to improve the conditions of working men and women. 

[10] They are the people who have to work for a wage or to sell small amounts of goods/services for living in precarious ways and whose needs more or less remain unmet and who are subjected to police brutalities and racial and gender and other forms of oppression and who suffer the most because of environmental damages caused by the profit-driven society?

[11] On a critical discussion on the notion of critique, see Das, R. J. 2014. A Contribution to the Critique of Contemporary Capitalism: Theoretical and International Perspectives. New York: Nova Science Publishers.

[12] On the social and class character of academia, there are many sources. Here are some. 

Das, R. 2012. ‘Academia as a site of class struggle’, Radical Notes, https://radicalnotes.org/2012/07/15/academia-as-a-site-of-class-struggle/.

Das, R. 2019. ‘The marginalization of Marxism in academia’, Links: International Journal of Socialist Renewal; available at: http://links.org.au/marginalization-marxism-academia

Ollman, B. 2003. The dance of the dialectic, chapter one, https://www.nyu.edu/projects/ollman/docs/dd_ch01_content.php

Brass, Tom 2017. ‘Academia as mode of seduction, or the elephant in the Socialist room’, In  his Labour Markets, Identities, Controversies. Leiden: Brill.

[13] Das, R. 2011. ‘Significance of counter-hegemonic culture’.  Radical Notes. https://radicalnotes.org/2011/11/27/significance-of-a-counter-hegemonic-culture-an-urgent-need-for-marxist-reading-groups/

[14] Political parties, including conservative parties, benefit from student movements, and yet it is interesting that in India the right-of-center BJP maligns student politics if it opposes BJP. See: Karnad, R. 2019. ‘How Extreme Student Protests Launched Narendra Modi's Career’. The Wire. https://thewire.in/politics/student-protests-narendra-modi-politics-career-navnirman-movement. This attitude is akin to another: my religion is the normal religion, but yours is unusual.

[15] My current and former students at York University and I have been educating ourselves by forming a reading group which has been holding intellectual meetings open for all, for the last 10 years or so.

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