by Andrew Bell
I have finished the requirements for my history degree and this semester I am completing my minor requirements in classics. Because of the mechanics of the minor requirements I am afforded the chance to take some 100-level (freshman) classes. I had steered clear of these classes since returning to school a few years ago but I signed up for two of them this semester. One of them is a giant lecture class on Sparta (500 students). This class has provided me with a very disheartening yet enlightening experience. The professor is using Sparta (in particular Xenophon’s account of their constitution) for the basis of the class. So he broke everyone into groups on day one by last name. The idea is to make the class mirror the agoge (the famed Spartan military training school).
Each group must sit in the same spot every day, each group has a graduate teaching assistant (TA) who is their leader, TAs call random names for attendance from each group, every absence causes the group to lose points, the TAs and elected students patrol the isles and groups get points taken off for bad behavior of any sort, if your name gets called for attendance you must show a photo ID, there is a secret police group of students that reports directly to the professor, and on and on. The carrot dangling in front of you is, of course, your grade, of which a letter is completely at the mercy of your group. Groups can challenge another group and take away points if successful. It is a soft military dictatorship based on soft repression and competition.
The disheartening part is the vigor that all 500 plus students displayed while going along with the class rules. It is kind of like a Stanford Prison Experiment. After a few weeks I wrote the professor an email message to relate my reaction to the class structure. A portion of that message follows:
I find the class structure to be infuriating, dangerous and disheartening. I often find my mind wandering during lecture pondering ways one might “break” the structure. I often think about not giving my id if my name is called for attendance. I find myself wanting to stand up and leave at times or yell something (I have done this twice). I have thought about self exile or trying to start a self exile group, the purpose of which would be to disrupt class or other groups. I find that I do not pay any attention to the material but rather to the structure. I look up and see students patrolling the isles and I try to catch their eye. I find the condescension stemming from the TAs to be unwarranted and unwelcome. All of these things occupy my mind during lecture and it has less to do with me being a troublemaker and more to do with my deeper feelings of disappointment in my fellow students and anger at the ease in which a simple structure has seemingly claimed everyone’s desire for direct action, independent thought and empathy. I have yet to find anyone who is more concerned with how they or others are being treated than their grade. However I also feel you are making a point with the structure and I do see worth in that, but at what cost? The cost for me has been a tenuous grasp of the material in exchange for a plethora of “ponderings” on rigid structures (soft repression, soft military dictatorship, social stigma etc), how they work and how they could be broken or avoided.
The most disheartening aspect by far is to watch young people fall in line. The immediate acquiescence to a higher authority is defeating to independent thought. It provides no incentive for the individual or the group to think outside the lines. The reasons for this acquiescence can only serve to deepen the feeling of despair. One reason is people don’t seem to care … about much. Another reason is people are only concern with their individual grade and anything beyond that seems cursory. Another reason might be that people simply like structure and authority. I cannot seem to find an acceptable reason to go along obeying the class structure yet I continue to go along with it.
Needless to say, I exiled myself from my group at the cost of a letter grade in exchange for completely opting out of the structure (this might sound familiar to many doomers). I have to sit alone in the back of the class now. The whole experience has been surreal. Many people seem to desire structure and have no problem with authority. It is shocking to be in class during the short group debates and hear every group refer to Sparta as a utopia, when Sparta is clearly a society built on slavery and warfare (one account has the slave to Spartan ratio at 7 to 1). Almost every single student has expressed admiration of the Spartan way of life. In fact during a debate on “what aspects of Sparta should be implemented in today’s society” here were some of the group answers (many groups had the same answer and it should be noted that it was a thought experiment posed to the groups):
Government control on what we are allowed to eat.
Public mockery of “out of shape” individuals.
Mandatory military service.
This one is the best: every person should be allowed one free kill, that is to say everyone gets to kill one person with no punishment during their lifetime.
I do not place much importance on the answers themselves but rather the implicit authority required for each to be implemented. Every answer is already assuming a strong authority capable of controlling the masses. The last answer (one free kill) was justified as soft repression; if everyone knew they could be killed if they wronged another than no one would wrong another. In that case the authority is fear of death.
To make matters worse, or better, depending on your worldview, the professor has received much adoration for the syllabus. He is flown around the country to do small versions of this syllabus with businesses in the attempt to create better and more efficient work environments, so I am told. The professor also teaches an Athens class which is run in the same way but structured as a democracy. He has informed me that, without fail, the Sparta class gets better grades and is able to get through more material. The Athens class, so he says, is always incredibly unorganized and undirected.
The performance difference between the two structures will pose something of a problem for many. When stepping back, the Sparta structure gets better and bigger results. However, as many of the readers have probably come to understand, the problem(s) we are facing today have more to do with bigger, better results of human action than undirected or unorganized human behavior. Taking the idea a bit further there is an assumption that coordinated human effort can solve the problems brought about by coordinated human effort.
I feel the need to express that I am quite fond of the professor even if I disagree with some of his views. However the quickness and ease with which the students followed the Spartan structure is cause for alarm. The adoration the professor received for creating the class is cause for alarm. While I do appreciate a unique approach to learning, the cause for alarm has nothing to do with the class itself. The alarm that should be ringing in your head right now is indicating a few overarching human aspects that can easily be nurtured into shortcomings. The how and why, as I see them, are described below:
We have strong desires to follow.
We can easily be led by carrots of our own creation.
We reward competition and discourage co-operation.
Our institutions have many cracks that individuals can slide through gaining undeserved social identities and stigmas.
Above all, this class has added, for me, much more weight to the argument that we are FUBAR. The further you stick your head up your ass the more applause you will receive.
I share this experience with you for a variety of reasons, none of which have to do with the class itself. The class did not hold a gun to my head nor a whip at my back. It did, however, provide me the opportunity to practice situationalism.
There are different definitions of situationalism so I need to clarify how I am using the word. Situationalism, crudely, is a revolutionary thought that posits the idea that every situation has an authoritative path and a non-authoritative path. I find situationalism to be helpful when I can remember it and apply it. I applied situationalism to the Sparta class and feel comfortable with the outcome. Moreover, I have piqued interest in some students who did not even know they had the option of self exile. Thus by choosing a non-authoritative path I have illuminated an option that others did not know existed. I am not claiming to be some revolutionary but rather that anyone at any given time has the ability to walk a non-authoritative path and that non-authoritative paths have a way of sparking independence in action and thought.
If we look at the situation of recycling, we can see a chance to practice situationalism. In my town we have two different-colored trash bins, one for waste and one for recycling. Every week both bins are put on the side of the road and the city comes to take the contents away. Recycling in this manner is the authoritative path, one is still handing the situation over to an authority. In order to take the non-authoritative path one would need to find a way to deal with the “trash” without using an authority. This would probably mean composting, which would probably lead to gardening. Having a garden in 2012 is not only logical and healthy but it’s downright revolutionary when viewed through the eyes of situationalism and that should also raise an alarm.
Andrew Bell is a human born prior to the advent of the internet. He has been with wealth and without wealth. He has been married and divorced. He has been in and out of school. He is quite fond of alternative historic narratives. He has always enjoyed music whether listening or playing. He aims to live in a community based on mutual aid and contractual obligation entered and exited by the free will of the individual. Above all he tries to hold a vision of his two nieces living in a better world than that of today.
With considerable help from Jennifer Hartley, McPherson will be speaking throughout Massachusetts and environs approximately 25 November 2012 through 5 December 2012. If you’d like to join the fun, send an email message to Jennifer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
With help from folks living near North Battleford, Saskatchewan (about 90 minutes’ drive northwest of Saskatoon), McPherson is planning to speak in that area in late January 2012. If you’re interested in hosting me in Saskatchewan or Alberta, please send a message to Christine at email@example.com.