Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Defending the Entrepreneurial Spirit from within Academia

This is an extremely long post — this topic is one I feel almost daily since entering academia. I've heard many colleagues discuss the evils of business and capitalism, and then they ask what I did before joining an English Department faculty. I generally omit most of my experiences and focus on my creative writing.

Many of us "capitalists" believe there is a gulf between some academic disciplines and the larger community. Outside business schools and some of the sciences, I know my experiences and beliefs will be insulted or dismissed, usually with "respect" and other polite framing that barely masks derision.

People wonder why there is such deep division in our culture? We've become entrenched in dichotomies, when life is not binary (except for the ideological extremists, I suppose).

Writing instruction and rhetoric in particular seems entangled in political views. We enter this field with the idea of changing something. You don't teach communication skills such as writing if you don't want to help others become engaged in our wider society and democracy.

College, at least in the humanities, is about helping citizens of the world (our students) improve their emerging abilities to analyze and evaluate the world around them.

Unfortunately, when many instructors write of "critical thinking" they mean "thinking like us" — that seems to be a fair amount of hubris and conceit.

Intentionally or not, these ideologically driven instructors dismiss anyone disagreeing with Western Marxism as somehow not a critical and creative thinker. This implies that those of us with honest intellectual disagreements on human psychology, economic theory, historical analysis, and philosophy are somehow not capable or not engaged in critical thinking of "real humanities scholars" in the estimation of the left-leaning activists.

I always found it ironic that the "Marxists" I know live and work in what might be the most hierarchical, patriarchal, "conservative" institution in Western culture: the university. When was the last truly radical change in our universities? When did we embrace meritocracy and ability over seniority or other caste-like systems of rank? And yes, universities are caste systems, with teaching assistants, adjuncts, and part-time faculty at the bottom no matter how much they contribute to the production of knowledge. (TAs are like serfs, sold the hope of a future post that we know is a rare find. Adjuncts are often not included in faculty senates or bargaining units.)

And, because Western Marxism uses the notion of "naturalization" and the "dimensionality" of Marcuse, you can always respond that I'm a deluded part of the problem. Because I succeeded in the capitalist system, from extreme poverty in youth to a professorship in middle-age, I am unable or unwilling to understand its problems. It is a convenient way to dismiss the opposition as no better than brainwashed.

I've attended academic conferences for about seven years now, and at almost every one there are the obligatory attacks on capitalism and business. I go to conferences seeking to learn new ways to teach writing. My students deserve the best instructor I can be. That's also a capitalist idea: I want to be valuable to the institution, my profession, and especially my students. I don't go to conferences wanting to hear whining about corporatism at the university. If you don't like the university structure and the conservative nature of writing instruction, change them.

"Conservative" can be "anti-capitalistic" because the market is won with new ideas and disruption. (Creative destruction is one of the basic theories behind modern capitalism.) An entrepreneur wants to create new ideas, better ideas, so he or she can replace the existing status quo. You invent something that no one even knew or dreamed would be wanted or needed. Who knew you needed a cell phone? Who knew you needed a computer? Actually, you didn't "need" most modern comforts.

Be disruptive! Be an "entrepreneur" in your classroom. Show how new ideas should be "bought" by the administration and by other teachers. Yes, I dare to suggest we replace the status quo and sell the new and improved ideas to students, parents, other faculty, and business leaders.

Because I believe social connections help people develop respect for others, I require service learning projects in my writing courses. My first-year composition courses do community projects, my technical writing courses do community projects, and so on. I encourage my students "write" via podcasts, movies, or whatever else helps them find a narrative voice. I don't give a flying flip about perfect APA or MLA formatting when a student is emerging as a writer and thinker.

I've ended up learning more from my students than I could have imagined. I've learned about their cultures, their hobbies, and their academic majors. I'm not about to tell a business major he or she is preparing for a path of evil; I listen and learn.

As an entrepreneur, I "market" my instructional ideas to others by showing what my students create. I want to change our stodgy education systems, not keep them as they are or return them to some imagined past glory.

Since I am vocal about engaged learning, people assume I'm a "liberal" or some sort of left-leaning activist and start telling me all that's wrong with capitalism and industry. I have to bite my tongue. We business owners and entrepreneurs aren't all demons waiting to eat souls and drink blood. Some are, most aren't. There are bad people, period.

The economic "pie" is not limited in most current economic models. There's room for an endless array of ideas. I can create things of value that require little more than the ability to express thoughts. We can argue about how I should be compensated for a poem, a novel, a new design, or a computer program, but as long as there are new ideas, there is an expanding "pie" of things to trade. If I write a new play, I have created a "product" as Shakespeare did. Artists "trade" their ideas. That creates a new market. No harm to anyone and no one is forced to buy tickets to plays or pay for novels.

We have so many service industries that the pie is limitless. Yoga is an industry in this nation, for goodness sakes. We could endlessly barter, trade money, or trade something else, but somehow we will trade my service or product for yours or something else I might want. I've traded computer programming for a dinner by a great Italian chef. Seemed fair to me, seemed fair to him. The pie expanded.

Now, yes, the earth is limited... and so is the sun and the universe. We all die. The universe will go cold. Some Continental schools might argue since it is all meaningless, we have to create meaning by working together — while knowing it is all absurd. The Anglo-American tradition is to argue that the individual has to create meaning, balancing that individualism with a social contract, struggling with the fact the individual and the community are never in perfect harmony.

My students don't always grasp the notion that they must balance self and other. Ego-centrism can take the form of youthful embrace of Objectivism or youthful embrace of Marxism; both simplistic versions really seeking to get as much for his or her self as possible.

Plenty of young "Marxists" imagine a promise of handouts and easy living — forgetting that someone has to do the "dirty jobs" in every society. Someone in a Marxist utopia has to be the sewer worker. Someone will be the farm worker. Which person will be assigned tasks that too few will want? Will workers for some tasks magically appear? Of course, the educated students are sure to be in the respected managerial class, I suppose, so Marxism will work out fine for them.

And the "everyone" will do "everything" doesn't work. I'm a first-generation college graduate, and know the high costs of manual labor on the human body. My paternal grandmother was a farm worker in the fields of California. My mother's family worked the mines of West Virginia. Some jobs are just plain lousy, even deadly. (That's also why I'm all for automating the lousy jobs.)

What worries me more about modern Marxist writings is the notion that somehow "governments" are more "responsible" than corporations. And when "Communist" nations do pollute and destroy nature, Marxists are quick to point out that those nations aren't really Marxist. Another convenient escape clause to the debate.

Chernobyl wasn't built by an evil capitalist. The Chinese coal-powered electric plants were not built by multinational corporations. Chinese mining disasters? Nobody knows how many miners die annually. The Aral Sea, which borders on the republics of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, is a "dead" sea: a body of water bigger than Lake Huron. Even the "good" social-democracies of Norway, Denmark, and the Netherlands depend on North Sea oil income, like Venezuela, to fund their brands of socialism. I guess that's the fault of the United States and neo-liberalism, though.

Resource conservation is logical, regardless of political views. Yet, somehow we conflate concern for the environment with left or right, capitalist or Marxist, as if it is that simple. I know plenty of "capitalists" donating time, energy, and money to save this planet for future generations. I know plenty of "Marxists" doing the same with their time and energy. (And I've already demonstrated "Communists" mine and deplete resources as badly as any other group.)

One does not have to embrace Ayn Rand's simplistic selfishness or some misunderstanding of Classical Liberalism to be a "capitalist" — Paul Krugman's Nobel was for an analysis of economic geography and the reasons "similar" regions end up with different outcomes, and he noted that "free markets" were part of this, but he has always suggested "free markets" needed a referee. Even the core literature of capitalism, from "Wealth of Nations" to "Road to Serfdom," speaks to the need for ethical and responsible transactions. It doesn't help that few of our students read economic texts, from Marx to Sowell and Krugman to Williams.

My students have read Marx, Sartre, the Frankfurt School, as well as Sowell and Williams. We need students to be challenged without telling them what the "right" answer is. When they tackle Hayek and Keynes, many students are stunned to learn how complex and often similar these thinkers can be. They've heard only simplistic "right" and "wrong" in the media and in courses, never realizing there is a spectrum within economics and political philosophy.

When my students read that Adam Smith feared amoral corporatism and mercantilism, they get confused. Somehow, they were taught that "capitalism" was Rand, the amoral selfishness of one-dimensional characters. They also don't know Marx — the original, not the half-dozen flavors of revised Marxism.

I tell my students, I have no answers for them. None. I don't pretend to know more than the human nature I've witnessed in my decades on this planet. That's what college is to me: a place where my students and I can admit we know very little, and humanity has an infinite number of lessons yet to learn.

What I claim to know is that given the chance, too many people on this planet will do horrible things. And large groups, sadly, will do even worse things to smaller groups. Maybe we can guide our students to appreciate there is that social balance between self and others that I wrote of earlier.

Let us hope colleges at least do that.

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