Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Teaching at Texas A&M | An Open Letter to My Contemporary Social Theory Class


            First, I want to say thank you for a semester full of great conversation, insight, debate, struggle, and fun. We covered some of the hardest material you will ever read (Foucault, Derrida, Horkheimer and Adorno, Habermas) and some of the toughest topics to discuss in public (politics, economics, race, religion, gender, sexuality). We have done so with grace, humility, and open minds. Everyone in the class may not have agreed with every reading or every point of view brought up in class, but y’all conquered the almighty task of discussing these things with civility – congratulations! Your journals displayed a depth of insight that is not common to most people at any level of education. I hope that you continue to read and think deeply. You have spent a great amount of time reading and writing, so I would like to reflect in the same way and offer some of my thoughts about or readings and discussions.

I have been keeping notes all semester of suggestions for you as you continue your academic, professional, and personal journey – think of this as my final paper.

Read, Read, Read

The brain is a muscle that must be exercised and the world of social beings is more complex than a thirty second sound bite or an hourlong political debate. There is a history of ideas and competing paradigms that coalesce into what we assume to be common sense, necessary, and true. 

We can only understand things like political debates by understanding the history behind them, how they developed, what they assume, and how we have arrived where we are. So don’t be afraid to tackle difficult readings. It is not necessary to understand them immediately rather you will build a body of knowledge that will lead to a deeper understanding of life as you continue honing this skill.

Recognize your subject position

Always consider your viewpoint, and recognize, as McLaren suggested, that it is only a point from a view – not THE point of view.

Understanding our personal worldview and how it effects the way we perceive others is a tough task to undertake but when we do so with open minds, it can be an incredible source of personal growth.

Ask questions

Maybe, the postmodern turn reflects the necessity to ask better questions and to focus less on absolute answers. Ask more than what is right – ask what is good.

Ask why you hold the opinions that you do. Ask what objectives or power (Foucault) is behind the movies and newscasts you watch. Ask what the underlying assumptions are to different political positions. Ask what will make a better world.

Interrogate answers

As we have read, the modern world was obsessed with neatly defined answers that created nice and neat boxes to explain the world as we experience it. Everything had its place and with that we felt some sort of comfort by knowing where we fit. 

But like W.E.B. Du Bois, C.L.R. James, Cornell West, Betty Friedan, Charlotte Gillman, Ben Agger, and Charles Lemert explained – these definitions were anchored to a center of assumptions about reality that reflected the interests of a specific set of people. 

While these assumptions have benefited those in the center, they marginalized, dehumanized, and delegitimized those outside of the center.

Discuss tough subjects

In our culture, we are paralyzed by the fear of disagreement. We are afraid to discuss subjects such as race, religion, and politics because we are afraid to be wrong. We are improperly oriented to each other and these subjects because our modern orientation to knowledge demands that one person be right and the other wrong. Don’t engage discussions to sway the other person to your view from a point but to learn and grow.

Thus keep an open mind, embrace ambiguity, and recognize that truth is ever allusive. Just when we think we know what is true - society changes, we change, and the world changes. 

This is what Derrida, Lytoard, Foucault, and the rest of the crew mean when they say there is no such thing as truth or proclaim the death of the meta-narrative. It is not that some things are not true but that truth changes, people change, and what is true at one time for a group of people will change with time and as people learn and adapt to the world around them.

Keep an open mind

When you discuss tough subjects, do so with an open mind and take pleasure in the journey of understanding. We have recognized, along with many of our theorists, that it is difficult (if not impossible) to uncover an absolute truth for every person and every group. 

This should relieve us of the feeling that we need to be right. Being free from the black and with nature of right and wrong, we can pursue a journey of understanding.

Embrace ambiguity

If everything could be explained, there would be no room for play (as Derrida emphasized), creativity, or adventure. Life is something that we cannot control and maybe that is what makes it beautiful. 

We are comforted by the structures of our society because we have been conditioned to but most of us understand how gray life really is. Embracing ambiguity allows us to be ok without explaining why we are ok.

Relax and have fun

Life will not unfold the way you have planned. The ups and downs of life are part of the journey. You will experience varying levels of success and disappointment. Recognize that everyone, despite his or her perfect life on Facebook, is experiencing the same rollercoaster of life. Take it for what it is worth, learn from it, and grow as a person. The sooner you accept the journey of life the sooner you will be content with the outcomes. 

Although at times everything will seem nothing less than serious, life is not that serious. Steer free from the entrapments of the material race. Don’t allow your possessions to control you rather use your possessions to create a better world for yourself and those around you – this will enable you to relax and enjoy your journey.

Never stop learning

This sums up all of my other thoughts. We will never know and understand life completely but we can keep striving to understand and know more. Utilize your job, discussions, success and failures, books, classes, friendships and family, and all the experiences you will have to develop a depth of understanding that embraces diversity and promotes the pursuit of a better world.

Never lose sight of the possibility of a better world

We have read about the benefits and consequences of modernity. One thing that many of the classical theorists that wrote at the dawn of modernity and those that are writing in postmodernity had in common was that they were theorizing about the good society. Some ideas led to the creation of better living conditions and some have led to the creation of greater inequality. 

Adam Smith and Karl Marx may have disagreed about how to get there but they both were attempting to get to a better place. After a century of war, destruction, and genocide we seem to have accepted that the world and man is incapable of evolving to a better place where poverty, disease, prejudice, and inequality are eradicated. 

We have been consumed by the dreams created by the culture industry and have been lulled into political complacency – where the statement “what does it matter if I am involved or not” has become commonplace. Maybe we cannot reach utopia, but why in the hell would we stop trying?

In conclusion:

This has been an enlightening class for me to lead and I have grown from our discussions and from reading your journals. I have been pushed to consider life on a deeper level and continue to wrestle with these big ideas. The comments I provided in your journals are meant to be the continuation of our conversation. 

My hope is that you take what you have learned and apply it to your life wherever it leads – business, teaching, nursing, mission work. 

My take-away from the semester is that life is complex and though we may not have all the answers, we can ask the questions that open a greater arena of discourse. 

Whether we agree or disagree on the specifics, we all want to create more humane society, we all want happiness, and we all want to achieve our full potential. So why not join each other on the journey and promote understanding and love.

Maybe our reorientation to truth and experience is the answer. Maybe allowing ourselves the freedom to be wrong is the answer. Maybe embracing the ambiguity of life allows us the opportunity to relax, laugh, and love.

Thanks again for a great semester and good luck on the rest of your journey,

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