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Should Colleges Teach a Course on the Occupy Movement?

What is the Value of a Separate Course on the Occupy Movement?

Last week Chicago’s Roosevelt University announced it is now offering a class on the recent Occupy Wall Street movement, allowing students to enroll in an up-to-date political science course that tries to examine the protest campaign that has spread across the US and the globe.

Jeff Edwards, an associate professor of political science and an expert in social movements, will instruct students with a curriculum that he says will examine essays and articles about the Occupy movement, including pieces penned by the protesters themselves. In New York, demonstrators launched the Occupied Wall Street Journal. In the nation’s capital, it was the Occupied Washington Post. Protest hubs in both cities have been raided by law enforcement, but nearly five months in the movement appears to "still have legs".

“It is exciting and timely to look at a movement as it unfolds in its early years,” Edwards says on the Roosevelt website. To watch the movement grow, he says that his students will attend General Assembly meetings of the Occupy Chicago protests, in addition to studying text that examine the ties between corporate greed and inequality in America.

I’m all for teaching about corporate greed and inequality in America and the original goals of the movement, but those goals have since been co-opted by other groups with their own agendas. Lately we have been witnessing disruptions and even violence at events that occupiers don't like with messages they don't agree with. The occupiers claim it is an exercise in civil disobedience. The problem is oftentimes there is nothing "civil" about their behavior.

From a professorial point of view I have to ask: Wouldn’t it be more pedagogically sound to teach about corporate greed and inequality in America in the context of the study of capitalism as a moral system according to Adam Smith or Ayn Rand’s objectivism?

So far 32 students have signed up for Professor Edwards’ class, Political Science 390, Special Topics in Political Science: Occupy Everywhere. He discusses the objectives of the course in an interview with CNN. In the video a student is asked whether she believes the “Occupy Movement” is as important to society as the civil rights movement and the sexual revolution. Of course the answer is “yes”. This really overstates the importance of the movement that started with the best of intentions to criticize greed in corporate America and the Wall Street banks that brought on the financial meltdown in 2008. Recently the movement has morphed into providing a platform for all kinds of grievances including the need to expand social programs.

Equating the Occupy Movement with other movements that have promoted equal rights for all citizens regardless of color or gender also belittles these humanitarian struggles that have advanced our nation as a civil society and provided lasting change. How can we possibly equate a movement that started just a few months ago with seminal events such as the civil rights movement and the sexual revolution? In the video Professor Edwards is asked whether he thinks the course he is offering will be offered five years from now. He answers “I think so”.

The question is how can a university agree to offer a course that purports to represent a movement based on thinking it still will be offered in five years? How can a university squander resources on teaching something that really should be discussed in a broader course that examines a variety of opinions and in a historical context?

Over the past few years colleges and universities have been pushing the envelope further than ever before in order to teach something that may be of deep personal interest to a professor but that takes us further and further away from our core values and historical beginnings, all in the guise of being relevant to today’s student body. You may recall hearing about the course in Human Sexuality that was taught at Northwestern University by Michael Bailey. If you missed that one the course gained national attention when Professor Bailey invited students to witness a live sex act between a woman, her boyfriend and another woman in a campus building.

I suppose some professors believe that an in-your-face approach to teaching will gain the attention of today’s students who have become accustomed to viewing offensive behavior on You Tube or on reality TV. Perhaps some professors believe such an approach to teaching is necessary to garner student interest in what they teach. However, the real challenge for a professor is to teach societal core values that are main-stream to American culture in a historical context, in a thought-provoking way, and in an intellectually stimulating manner.    

According to Professor Edwards, part of the course readings are the occupy newsletters and social media. How can a college course be offered with such a dearth of epistemological support for its very being? As I thought about this question from a college professor’s perspective I had to wonder what was next. How about a course on the Tea Party? Hasn’t it done as much or more than the Occupy Movement to influence thought especially during this election cycle?

Then again if cooler minds prevailed the Occupy movement would be discussed in a course that addresses the original Tea Party – you know in Boston. Remember that one on December 16, 1773? The one that spawned the American Revolution and led to the mantra: No taxation without representation. Do we even teach about it anymore? The incident remains an iconic event of American history, and other political protests often refer to it. I wonder if Professor Edwards even mentions it in his “Occupy” course.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on February 13, 2012