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.