broken walls and narratives

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Archive for the tag “education”

What Do We Learn about South African Apartheid?

What do we learn about South African Apartheid?

This blog post stems from my plans to embark on a trip to South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe in late June. Now, I am not an expert on South Africa or Africa in general. I really am in the stages of learning and thinking, rather than producing knowledge. In this attempt to learn more about Africa in general, I headed to the Duluth Library Book Sale. I came home with dozens of books, but there was next to nothing for sale on the topic of Africa! The only book I found was Brian Lapping’s Apartheid: A History, which was written in 1986! I read the book, but because it is so old, it does not make sense to write a book review. If I reviewed the book, much of the story would remain untold.   In any event, the book was a quick read that didn’t offer much depth or political analysis. I wouldn’t recommend it except as a nice introduction to the topic. Nevertheless, I wanted to write an easy to read blog post about apartheid in South Africa. As I thought of the topic, I considered what I learned about South Africa in school. Really, I learned next to nothing. I think I was given this general idea that once upon a time there was racial inequality in South Africa, then Nelson Mandela came along, and everything was better. With that said, I will explore some of the narratives about South Africa that seem to be popular in our society.

  1. Everything is Better Myth:

If you learn about apartheid in school, the narrative of apartheid is one of victory over injustice. This is the same way we learn about the Civil Rights movement or women’s suffrage movement. We are provided with a narrative that a historically isolated moment of struggle ends in triumph and change. Everything is better. The end.

Spielvogel’s Glencoe World History textbook, published in 2005 and used at a local high school, ends its two page coverage of apartheid (out of over 1000 pages) with the election of Nelson Mandela and a quote about the rainbow nation. This leaves the distinct impression that good triumphed over evil.

One of the problems with this narrative is that it ignores the ways in which apartheid continues through economic mechanisms. In 1993, South African Trotskyist Neville Alexander, wrote that apartheid laws could be removed because racial inequality already had a firm foundation. Over two decades later, 60-65% of South African wealth is in the hands of 10% of the population. 47% of the country lives in poverty and 25% of the country is unemployed. If unemployment is looked at along racial lines, about 39% of Black South Africans are unemployed compared to 8% of whites. The average white family earns six times more than the average Black family. Although some Black South Africans have joined the middle class since the end of apartheid, the country remains economically divided along racial lines.

There are many reasons why economic inequality persists. Although the original Freedom Charter adopted by the ANC supported the redistribution of wealth and land, economic demands of the charter were not adopted. The ANC is not an anti-capitalist party and apartheid was built upon economic inequality. As such, the end of apartheid allowed only for a democracy founded upon fundamental inequalities and a system that promotes such inequalities. The same state, police, and military continued on, but with a different face. While the racial demographics of government have changed, the state remains the same inasmuch as it has pursued neoliberal policies and used the police to kill workers (i.e. the Lonmin mine massacre that killed 47 people)!


2. The Nelson Mandela Myth:


Nelson Mandela died back in 2013 when I worked at the Boys and Girls Club. The children told me that they learned about Nelson Mandela in school. Although they learned about him in school, the content was pretty minimal as he was presented as a sort of Santa Claus like character. He was a mythical, jolly, peaceful fellow who ended apartheid and brought the gift social justice to the world. While there is nothing wrong with learning about Nelson Mandela, the way in which he and any other historical figure is presented is as a maker of history. This ignores other individuals, economic conditions, social movements, labor organizing, and other important factors in social change. In short, social change is reduced to the heroic actions of a mythical individual. Beyond this, the depiction of these heroes is white washed. For example, Spielvogel’s (2005) Glencoe World History textbook says the following: “After the arrest of ANC leader Nelson Mandela in 1962, members of the ANC called for armed resistance to the white government (p. 922).” In this statement, Nelson Mandela is a catalyst for armed resistance but not a promoter of it. Nowhere in the paragraph does it mentioned that Nelson Mandela believed in armed resistance and was the head of the Spear of the Nation (the armed wing of the ANC). He co-founded it in 1961 AFTER the Sharpeville massacre wherein 69 unarmed protestors were shot (in the back as they fled) by police. But, the textbook does not mention the Sharpeville massacre and the role it played in changing the tactics of the ANC. Rather, the reader is lead to believe that it was the arrest of Nelson Mandela (the great individual in this narrative) which was the cause of arm struggle. This neutralizes the subversive aspects of Nelson Mandela, making him out to a Barack Obama type character.   He was considered a terrorist and leader of a terrorist organization. He went to prison under laws made to persecute communists. He was, at least for a time, a member of the South African Communist Party. He was also a domestic abuser who threatened his first wife that he would attack her with an axe.

Individuals are thorny and imperfect. The right wing has a heyday with such things. Instead, it should raise issues of how a “terrorist” is socially constructed and what is deemed a terrorist organization is a matter of the power. It should also raise issues about the role of violence in social change or considerations of the role of capitalism in promoting racial inequalities (the SACP should not be idealized, but at least recognized as a part of history). In later textbook passages, Nelson Mandela is described with more apolitical staleness. He was imprisoned for 26 years and became the first Black president of South Africa. That is all. Desmond Tutu is mentioned in one sentence as a person who helped to release him. This is the complete cast of characters in the story of apartheid. There is no mention of Steve Biko, one of many people who mysteriously died in police custody (after torture). More important than the addition of other anti-apartheid figures is the lack of coverage of social history. The textbook does not mention the Soweto massacre, for instance. Students might be able to relate to the struggle of fellow students against curriculum changes. Up to 1000 (700?) people died to learn math and to speak their own language!

  1. America the Invisible/Elephant in the Room:

            Nowhere in the textbook I’ve been using as an example is there any mention of the role of the United States in all of this. I learned the other day that U.S. companies Polaroid and IBM profited from the creation of identification cards and card reading systems used for the passes that kept Black South Africans segregated and relegated to Bantustans. As of 1985, U.S. companies controlled 70% of the computer market in South Africa. The tires used by South African police and military vehicles were purchased from Firestone and Goodyear. In 1985, 20% of all foreign investment in South Africa was American. These corporations profited from the cheap labor of black workers, who lived and worked as impoverished guest workers in the slave like conditions of their own country. The United States refused sanctions against South Africa until 1986 and vetoed a UN resolution to expel South Africa’s membership. Even under the Carter administration, the United States abstained from a UN vote to impose an oil embargo on South Africa. Beyond the economic bounty that corporations gained from apartheid, South Africa was an important U.S. ally and staging point for wars against left leaning independence movements in Africa.   Of course, textbooks try to be apolitical and inoffensive, so the omission of this close relationship with South Africa is expected. But, the absence of the U.S. is political. It only adds to the amnesia of our negative role in history and a denial of our own troubled race relations. Digging deeper, it might call into question the U.S.’s relationship with Israel or the parallels between Israel and South Africa. White South Africans (of Boer descent) saw themselves as a chosen people who belonged on the land. People who had always been there. They also saw themselves as victims of British imperialism and genocide with a right to defend themselves. Just as the story of apartheid ends with Nelson Mandela, the story of segregation ends with Martin Luther King Jr. or the story of slavery ends with the Civil War. In these stories, racism exists only in a historical moment. It existed and, like the dinosaurs, vanishes into the deep history of dust and fossil imprints. The dinosaurs aren’t with us now. And we are led to believe that racism is also a thing of the past.


I am not an expert on South Africa or racism. I am not an expert about anything. I am a student. I like to learn. I would also like to be a teacher. In this capacity, I hope I taught you a few things about apartheid and how we think about it in American society. There is much more to say on this topic. I have a lot on my mind. I will save it for another post or wait until I do more reading. Until then, the story continues.

School is out….forever?

The above picture is me trying to recreate my kindergarten school photo.  The sweater is a darker shade of blue, but I did try to add a small blue bow.  So, there I am after my M.S. in teaching and again at the beginning of it all.   I actually took the photo last fall, as I knew that this past fall was going to be a very special school year.  It was going to be the last year at St. Scholastica!  St. Scholastica where…so long ago…I began my undergraduate degree.  This is where I ended my master’s degree!  Those gray towers represent so many harsh, lonely winters and long, empty days.  I struggled with my first degree.  I did not make a single friend at CSS.  Not one.  I worked full time and went to school full time…and lived with my family.  Plus, I lacked the social skills to make friends back then.  Yuck.  I’ve come a long way from those lonely first years of college.

One week ago, I did my capstone presentation.  After adding up all of the points from the entire program, I calculated that I completed the program with 99.33% of the points available in all of my classes.  That feels nice.  This year, I only missed 1.25 points between the classes I took.  I missed .25 points for using the wrong font on my header.  That also feels nice.  I feel validated by numbers.  As for the capstone presentation, it was pretty easy.  It was just a short presentation on a data project that I completed this semester.  The project was a content analysis of three world history textbooks, wherein I analyzed the content using James Bank’s 17 point Checklist for Evaluating Materials.  The checklist is a 17 criteria diversity checklist which uses Likert Scale which rates book on a scale of one to six based upon their coverage of women’s history, African American history, ethnic minorities, linguistic minorities, social classes, etc.   The rating is fairly subjective and was designed for American history materials.  I adapted the language of the checklist to say “core society” instead of “U.S. Society” so that it would be more applicable for world history courses.   In this sense, the project draws a little from Wallerstein’s World Systems Theory, as well as Multicultural Education. The three books that I rated did pretty terribly, but interestingly, the book used in an AP World History course performed the worse.  The project ended up being 90 pages and was far from perfect.  However, it was fun to sit down and analyze how history is presented in textbooks.

With this, I am done.  It is odd.  I have been in school a long time.  Being in school has become a way of life.  I know this makes me odd.  It certainly makes me in debt.  This is my second masters.  This follows two bachelor degrees.  Usually, I am looking to the future.  What classes will I take in the fall?  What degree will I pursue next?  Instead, I am done.  Done and without direction.  I even made my first student loan payment last week.  It is like a new era of the normal life.  The life that everyone else lives.  Normal people do not go to school forever.  I have even come to learn that normal people think you are bizarre if you go to school forever.  It is so bizarre that I really don’t advertise it.  Of course, I write about it here and feel proud of it.  In other ways, I feel ashamed.

I feel a little sad.  I used to dream of having dozens of degrees before I die.  I could be a botanist or environmental scientist.  How about an art degree?  What about English?  Another Masters Degree?  Why not try a M.A. in History next time.  The sky is the limit.  Down the road there would be a Ph.d in something.  I would be an eccentric old polymath.   My brother mocked me for even wanting to be a polymath.  I am not trapped in a delusion of grandeur, I just want to know everything.  I want to collect degrees like some old ladies collect porcelain clowns. The reality is that this would amount to so much debt that it would be both irresponsible if not impossible.   So, I feel sad as I put this dream on the shelf for a while.

Oh, it isn’t an impossible dream.  There are ways to go to school without debt.  I could pay for a class here and there and at a glacial pace collect more degrees if that is what I find suits me.   Some master’s programs are funded, so there is always that.  And, I could always work at a university and take free classes that way.   There are ways.  But for now, I think it is time for some time off.

I wonder what is wrong with me.  Some people might suppose that a person who stays in school forever is trying to escape the real world.  But, I have lived in the real world.  I’ve usually worked full time while in school.  I have hobbies and am involved in activism/community.  This is my real world.   Some people might also suppose that I need to show off or have something to prove.  That could be somewhat true.  My self esteem may be tied to getting A’s.   But, I don’t really show off.  At a certain point, there is too much education.  Education is an embarrassment!  And, I don’t want people to feel inferior to me, so if I meet a stranger, I don’t usually talk about schooling.  I recognize that it is a privilege.  I have the ability to conform to educational settings.  I don’t have children.  I don’t have responsibilities.  I can assume debt without consequence to anyone but myself.  And, from time to time, the costs may be defrayed by scholarships or graduate assistantships.

At some level, I connect school with progress.  I feel that if I am not in school, I will become a sloppy thinker with a dopey mind.  School keeps me sharp.  It forces me to read things and do things that I wouldn’t on my own.  On my own, I read and learn, but do not typically write papers or do projects.    I am afraid that if I am not in school, I will become lazy or stagnant.   Also, school gives me a goal to work on.  I know that in X number of years or X number of credits, a degree will be done.  Life does not provide the same predictable benchmarks for achievement.   What’s more, school seems full of choice and possibility.   I could study almost anything.  I could become knowledgeable in a smorgasbord of disciplines.  What a wonderful idea!

To be fair,  school does not make me better or smarter.  I have forgotten many things over the years.  But, I feel that I know a little about a lot.  I can make connections between things, even if I can’t remember all of the details.  It isn’t worth the price of tuition.  Why bother at all?  I think it has symbolic value.   Education doles out rewards in symbols.  Some are letters:, A, B, C and some are numbers, like GPA and percentages.   It is a strange currency that means little outside the institution itself.  I’m addicted to these rewards, like a trained dolphin to fish.  School is a place where I feel competent.

With that said, I meet the end of the school year with sadness and fear.   There is some relief mixed in, sure.  It is nice to be done.  Most people probably feel accomplishment.  I only feel hunger for what is next.  Unfortunately, I don’t know.  It saddens my heart to think that next fall will come and there will be no classes!  There will be dry autumn leaves, but no new educational beginnings.  Short, crisp days but no new school clothes and supplies.  No early mornings with frost on the windows of my car.  No picking out new classes.  Just…the other things.  Amorphous time that is not marked by semesters or academic years.  No “nice job”, A plus, due dates, cohorts, or flash cards.   Just all the other things that were there all along.  More of those things.  More time.  Less stress.

Schools out!  For now.  Probably not forever.


Maybe I won’t shelve the dream of being a weird old lady who secretly has degrees in everything.  It is hard to shelve the dream.  The shelf is already full of books.  Would you rather it be shelved with porcelain clowns?



Silly bias, prisons aren’t for kids?

Today I attended a neato meeting at the Jefferson’s Peoples House.  The meeting was called “No Incarceration, Yes Education.”  The basic reason for the meeting was concern that many youth, especially those of color, are sent from schools into juvenile detention centers and prisons.  Many issues related to this were brought up, such as the inability of schools to accommodate diverse behaviors to how non-profit organizations meant to help youth often oppress them.  I will focus on the latter, as I have several years of youth work experience at the Boys and Girls Club, Neighborhood youth services, and Youth and Families in transition.

One of my frustrations doing youth work is that these organizations operate with a lot of unquestioned middle class, white assumptions.  One example is that while working at the Boys and Girls club, my boss used the example of a BGC in Texas wherein there was high crime.  Youth were often members of gangs and the club was situated in a “bad” neighborhood.  However, the staff had high expectations.  When the youth entered the building, they turned their hats around and pulled up their pants.  To me, this is respectability politics writ large.  To my boss, this was awesome, since it showed that the youth were respectful.  To me, it was kind of horrific.  Since, who determines what is respectable?  White people.  White people feel uncomfortable with low hanging pants and backwards caps.  So as long as you act like a white person, you are welcome.  Now, my boss was a nice guy who truly cares about youth, but in his mind, respectful looked middle class and white.  Likewise, in another incident, my supervisor began a staff meeting by showing us a video about broken windows theory.  The main idea of this theory is that if you punish the small things and keep a neighborhood tidy, people will begin to show pride in their community and crime will diminish.  I wanted to scream!   Basically, this says, nicely painted houses with well kept lawns…and lots of policing = less crime.  That’s the most middle class, white garbage I’ve encountered.  It was also plain old racist considering that broken windows theory, when applied to New York City, had a negligible effect on violent crime, but did result in 7.1 million police summonses (81% of which were directed at people of color).

Nevertheless, we were told to keep the club clean and be consistent with behavior management.  Now, sure, clean is fine.  However, at that point in time I was rather overworked.  I had spent the year doing Americorps, putting in 50+ hours of work each week for less than minimum wage.  The idea that I should do more cleaning did not settle well with me.  Entropy becomes the norm when there is little prep time or time between areas to clean.  Worse, was the blame that the messes in the club were causing behavior problems was ridiculous.  Perhaps poverty, racism, hunger, annoyance with white staff, attention seeking, mental health issues, health issues, or a hundred gazillion other variables contributed to behavior problems.  But, messiness?  Maybe, just maybe, behavioral problems are subjective.  Granted, they don’t feel subjective when directed at me….but, with a really open mind and enough emotional support, standing on the table, swearing, or throwing things aren’t behavior problems as much as they are means of communication or different values concerning space and property.

There are many good things that the Boys and Girls club did.  There are enriching activities, free meals, staff supervision, and so on.  Without the club, kids might be home alone or hungry.  They might also be abused at home or may not even have a home.  With that said, I don’t want to critique the existence of such organizations.  However, because of grant funding, these organizations exhibit a certain conservativism.  Funders want results.  These results are improved graduation rates, grades, school attendance, club attendance, or other quantitative indicators of success.  However, in this world, success is measured by white, middle class measures.  Success is defined by white, middle class terms.  The long, diverse narratives of individual lives, where people may drop out, engage in crime, or runaway, spend decades struggling, but still find a modicum of meaning and happiness doesn’t matter.   To some, success might be rejecting narratives that a house, one child, and drug free life is good.  Success might be crime, a big family, or money from any means.  Is this okay?  What is okay?  I would want youth to determine for themselves what success means for them.  I have decided what success means to me.  To me, it is endless education, travel, and activism.  I am okay not having a house, kids, respect, or much money.  So, if I can define success differently, shouldn’t youth?

There are so many ideas that I could explore.  Today’s discussion was rich and interesting.  I sat aside and listened.  I heard radical people of color who wanted their own institutions.  They were tired of non-profit organizations run by white people, imposing white values.  Now, as a white person, certainly….I have some of these values.   But, at least I felt good hearing that there are other people who have those frustrations.  As a white person, it is hard to navigate how to serve and relate to minorities.  I don’t want to be a white savior, coming to bring social justice.  At the same time, I want to have a meaningful life where I help people.  I care about injustice and inequality.  I guess… it is a learning process.  Today was part of a listening process.  There are structures and ideologies that prevent non-profit organizations from helping minorities.  However, I think that these structures and ideologies are malleable.  With a mass movement, people can move against them and promote new ideas, discourses, reforms, and institutions.

In the Future, Cakes will be Robots: Technology and Education.

Well,  here goes another post about education.  Education has been on my brain lately because well, I am in an accelerated program working on a teaching license and teaching master’s.  So, here is my gripe of the week: education and technology.   The reason why I am upset about this is because my program, in many ways, has not challenged me to think deeply.  While the program has challenged me to do a large amount of work quickly, I am disappointed with the shallow level of engagement with ideas.  Granted, maybe my life is better because I can choose to challenge myself in this regard.  Nevertheless, we are taught from textbooks and websites, with little emphasis on exploring scholarly work.

I will illustrate this shallowness with technology.  As future teachers, we are encouraged to use technology in our classrooms.  The fact that teachers do not use technology is decried as a horrible thing.  What’s more, teachers are criticized for being laggards or for not implementing technology in meaningful ways.  After all, technology is everywhere!  This is a tech savvy generation!  No one can stand against the tide?  Who would?  Worse, teachers who don’t use technology are not preparing their students to work in the technology driven world!  So goes the unquestioned narrative of the technological boom and boon for classrooms.

As future teachers, we are taught a very narrow set of approaches to technology.  Mainly, we are taught technological determinism and instrumentalism.  Technological determinism approaches technology as something inevitable and everywhere.  You either adapt or die.  Agency to resist or interact with technology is ignored.  In fact, teachers who resist technology are viewed as laggards or old-fashioned.  On the other hand, technology is also taught from an instrumentalist approach.  This posits that technology is a tool.  It is neither good nor bad, simply a tool to be used by teachers.  Within these perspectives are various assumptions.  The first assumption is that technology is necessary for future jobs.  Therefore, failure to use technology is a disservice to youth.  While technology is certainly pervasive, tech jobs are not the dominant sector of society.  Hospitality, retail, health care, construction and finance are among the largest sectors.  Certainly a cashier or fast food worker use technology, but advanced technological training are generally not required of those jobs.  Another assumption embedded in mainstream approaches is that technology = progress.  What is progress?  Who benefits from progress?  These are the kinds of questions that are ignored within my program.  Finally, technology is only treated as positive or neutral.  Technology is treated as positive, inasmuch as it is supposed to enhance and support learning or appeal to student interest in technology.  Alternatively, it is treated as neutral, again as a tool to be used.

I can think of nothing in society that is neural.  Everything that is made has social consequences.  There are no neutral tools, as all tools exist for the purpose of supporting society.  Society is not neutral.  I can think of no neutral technology, as it is either made with exploited labor and with extracted resources.   Much of our technology is made oversees, often by women who work long hours under unhealthy conditions.  The materials used to make this technology are not kindly removed from the earth, but at times extracted in war-torn places by worn out people.  The removal is not gentle and sustainable, but violent and destructive.  But, supposing that a school buys “fair trade” technology or union-made technology, it does not mean that the technology itself is good.  There are pros and cons to technology beyond the social, environmental, and human consequences of their production and distribution.  Spell check may result in lowered spelling ability.  Does this ability matter?  Online discussion may improve writing skills, but diminish social skills.  Web browsing may diminish the ability to pay attention or focus deeply on one piece of information.  Technology shapes our patterns and frames of thinking.  While there may be some agency to resist or challenge this, there cannot be agency without some level of awareness and critical thinking.

I am not anti-technology.  However, I don’t want to be pro-technology simply because it is what is expected of me or the norm in teaching.  Technology should be evaluated for its consequences.  Assumptions that it is inevitable, all-powerful, and positive should be questioned.  Technology should be treated like a tool, but it is a tool that exists in a capitalist system.  What does that mean?  It means that there is conflict between workers and machines, in so much that machines replace and manage human labor.  Of course, there is also conflict between technology and the economy itself.  After all, replacing workers with machines results in a race for better, more efficient machines.  It results in more production, but also more investment into fixed capital.  In the end, this results in declining profits and a crisis of over production.  It also means alienation from production and products.  It also means that there is social inequality, and therefore inequality in technological access.  There is a digital divide based upon an economic divide.  At the same time, there is combined and uneven development, wherein people in Africa may have Smartphones but lack vaccines or clean water.  The World Bank might frame this as progress.  But, what is progress?  Who benefits from this kind of progress?

In my program, we always discuss teaching higher order thinking and critical thinking.  However, very little of our work seems to do this.  We really don’t question such things as classroom management or the role of technology in the classroom.  Granted, if we question too much we won’t get hired or parents won’t like us.  Maybe we’ll be fired.  We aren’t taught to be scholars and thinkers.  Scholars and thinkers are left to universities, where they can serve those students who get to go to college….and exist in an academic bubble, disconnected from the world.  No, that is an unfair generalization.  The main point is that the technological ideologies taught in this teaching program, and I imagine, all teaching programs, add to a certain technological momentum.  I just want to slow down the train!  Where are we going?  Why?  Is that good?  Is it bad?  Who benefits?  This doesn’t make me a Luddite.  I’m just weary of “rah, rah, how can we implement more technology into the classroom?”

Ethics and Education


While I was eating dinner today, I began to think about my thesis.  I am FINALLY going to defend it in two weeks.  While thinking about my thesis, I began thinking about research ethics.  When a student undertakes research involving human subjects, she or he must submit their research proposal for IRB approval.  The reason for this, or at least the reason we are given in Research Methods, is that this prevents harm to humans.  Of course, if some minor harm comes to humans but there is great social benefit to the research, it may still be approved.  History is full of unethical studies that caused harm to the subjects involved, such as the commonly cited examples of the Milgrim study, Tuskegee syphilis study, and the Stanford prison experiment.  I can’t think of any qualms with research ethics as it seems rather basic that research should not harm people and if it does, this harm should be weighed against a greater good.  (Of course, the greater good is subjective as is harm.)

With that said, institutions go to great lengths to make certain that research is ethical.  However, this seems to be an island of ethics.  Universities, or other institutions, do not account for ethics in much else aside from research.  For instance, the apparel that sports teams wear or that is sold in bookstores may be made in sweatshops.  The food that is served in dining services is likely sourced from factory farms.  The treatment of these animals would not (at least I think) be accepted for IACUC approval if treated that way in the name of an experiment or research.  There are also everyday, common place harms against students and workers at universities.   For example, 75% of rape victims are women under the age of 25, many of which are college students.  What structures and behaviors within campuses promote rape culture?  If nothing is done to curtail this, or, if these structures and practices are even promoted, can an institution be considered ethical?  When it comes to institutional decisions regarding everything BUT research, it seems that ethics are hardly considered.

That brings me back to my original idea.  Can institutions conduct ethical research, when other aspects of their institution are not ethical?  Research is submitted to the IRB on an individual basis, but the individual cannot be extracted from social context.  For example, could Nazi German scientists conduct ethical research?  While an individual Nazi may be able to conduct research that does not harm, if this individual is placed in broader social context it seems that ethical research is not possible.  This is an extreme example, but I hope this clarifies my point.  A research project that proposes that 350 women should be raped would be rejected, yet, in the broader social context, this does happen on campuses!  This isn’t to argue that universities do nothing about these problems, but I think that many ethical issues are not on the radar or are taken as seriously as research.  Ethics is squirmy- because right and wrong are debated concepts.  But, at least in research there is a working definition of ethics as causing no harm.  It therefore baffles me how ethics can be taken so seriously in some areas and not in others.  Beyond this, I am not certain that any research is ethical, so long as humans are harmed by the institution wherein or whereby the research is conducted.

I don’t want to freeze knowledge or the exploration of ideas.  I only want to call into question the compartmentalization of ethics.  Research ethics should not be idealized as there is always harm, somewhere in the process, after the process, or before the process even began.  Is harm inevitable?  No.  But it is an effect of larger systems of inequality and injustice.  It is also an effect of the atomization and alienation of everyone.  Our isolation and distance from the processes of how things are made or where things come from, render harm invisible to us.

What should be done?  Would an ethical university only buy fair trade foods, sweatshop free apparel, cruelty free foods/cosmetics, and sustainability grown paper products? Would an ethical university offer free tuition, safe chemicals to custodians, bus rides, sustainable powered buildings, high wages to student workers, etc?  There are many things that could be done.  Certainly some of these things would make these institutions more ethical.  But, at the end of the day, institutions are connected into the broader society- which itself is full of inequality and injustice.  The point is, there are no islands of ethics.  Researchers, institutions, communities, states, and countries are interconnected.  If the connection between them is a socio-economic system that harms people, then ethics are not possible.  This should not be taken with despair, but with the goal of enlarging ethics and branching out beyond research. Things can be better…and there can be less harm….but part of doing this is enlarging the circle.

In any event, that was my most thoughtful thought of the day and something I hadn’t considered before.

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