Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Power Experiment… Success or Failure?

At the beginning of this semester Dr. Johnson passed out a syllabus that did not list the order of our reading assignments. The objective, she explained, was to give our class the power to choose which books we would read and when. However, Dr. Johnson did suggest that we select one of the introductory books to start with. As most of us will remember, we held a formal vote on the second or third day of class to decide our first reading: Jackson’s Sovereignty won out over Ideology: A Very Short Introduction. Overall, it was a very democratic exercise of power.

Our next reading was the runner-up to Sovereignty, Michael Freeden’s Ideology. Though we didn’t actually vote this time there was a general consensus that the second reading should be everyone’s second choice. As soon as we finished this book, however, Dr. Johnson decided we should read some work of Hannah Arendt’s. Society Must Be Defended by Michael Foucault was similarly chosen. By the time we finished struggling through Foucault the end of the semester was beginning to loom ever closer, and I suggested that we read Disposable People next, since one of our seminar paper topics focuses on Bales’ book. Though a few people offered non-committal nods, shrugs, and throat-clearings, there was no vote once again; if anyone disagreed, they didn’t voice their dissent. Finally, our last book, Capitalism, was picked by our professor, since so many students were expressing an interest in the economic issues tied up with slavery.

My question to my classmates (and Dr. Johnson as well) is whether our power experiment was a success or failure. Did we ever really have any choice at all? What if we decided half-way through reading Sovereignty that it was a waste of time; was dropping the book, which we had chosen, a possibility? More importantly, did our class ever have the power to veto one of Dr. Johnson’s suggestions?

Personally, I think the experiment was a success. The deterioration of our “democratic” system reflects the real-life crises of many nations today. Whether or not the reading material was what we wanted, it is what was believed by Dr. Johnson to be in the class’s best interests. Similarly, many governments have the power to pass laws without the consent of the people. This is made possible in two ways: the citizens either trust that their governments are truly doing what is best for them, or those who disagree keep their silence, believing that their dissension will make no difference. Clearly, Dr. Johnson is not a dictator and our class is not a state; however, the parallel between power within our classroom and power within the world is very telling.


Alex C said...

I never thought about whether or not we would be able to exercise such power and say "Foucault is far too confusing, lets not read this any more." As much as I would have liked to, I do not think we, as students, had the power to do that. I do think the system was a success, because we ultimately had control over what the class discussed. At the end of our precis we would write questions and these questions were was the entire class talked about. Unless Dr. J wanted to clarify readings she rarely controlled the discussion, and it was the aspect of the class I liked most. While I do not think we had as much power regarding what we read I do believe it was up to us what we did during class and that I think was a great success for the class.

lynn s said...

I have to agree with Alex on this one. While we were able to choose which books we wanted to read, there were still limitations. For example, we could not choose to read books that were not on the list, and we could not decide to stop reading a book, because it was difficult or boring. The school administration grants Dr. Johnson power over us, and Dr. Johnson can’t get rid of that power (unless she resigns). So, even though she granted us this choice, she still held power to veto our choices. She just chose not to exercise that power.

Courtney Martin said...

Although our classroom is obviously on a much smaller scale, there are very reasonable parallels between a teacher and students, and the government and the citizens. Along the same thought as Lynn, the administration grants Dr. Johnson the power over her classroom. Coming to Rhodes, we subject ourselves to the rules, standards, and traditions that are to be followed; therefore, we are in mutural understanding that Dr. Johnson is in control. She creates a system for us to follow by establishing boundaries such as the amount of work that has to be accomplished and the different books to read. She also creates the feeling of freedom and the ability to chose by conducting votes for the books and allowing the discussion to be personalized. In this, we create a community within the classroom. Similarily, the goverment creates laws that are to be followed, but grants us freedom of speech and the ability to chose within those boundaries. I had not thought of this before and found Scarlett's analysis constructive to see how systems of one's society often apply in different realms.

Cal said...

EPIC FAIL...not really. I feel like while some of the selections were helpful, like Sovereignty and Capitalism, it was a huge leap in difficulty moving from these books to a well-renowned philosopher like Foucault. I would also like to have read more books that argue the value of civilization itself (to set the stage for the Soveregnty book), like Freud's Civilizations and Its Discontents.