Monthly Archives: April 2014

What Did I Learn in Class This Year?

With only a few final papers left to grade and marks to post, I’ve got some time to think about the winter 2014 term. Since I ask my students to reflect on what they learned throughout the term, it only seems fair that I do the same.

I taught two classes this term. Urban Poverty and Policy is one that I have taught a few times now. The second class, Community Organizing, was a new one for me, and the first time it was offered in the Urban and Inner City Studies Program.

My classes were offered in the morning. This winter was the longest, coldest winter in my memory, and that made it awfully tempting for students to skip their first class of the morning—especially if it was off campus in the North End. The weather kept a few students away each week but generally attendance was good throughout the term.

I am always taken aback by the interesting comments and conversations that take place in our classroom. I think there is something about the unique environment at Urban and Inner City Studies that inspires open and sometimes emotional dialogue. I love how much the students learn from being exposed to different perspectives and experiences—how much they learn from each other.

And I learn a lot too.

A final assignment I include in all of my classes is a written and oral presentation about “what I learned”. This is always my favourite class of the year. It is always well attended (a chance for a few extra marks!) and always very interesting, inspiring and sometimes powerful.

When reading through students written reflections of the term, one student ended his paper with a question. He asked:

“I wonder what kinds of things Professor MacKinnon learned form our class this time around?”

Well, I learned a lot as I always do. I learned how much young adults are struggling to make sense of a world that is increasingly unjust. I learned how much students are concerned about the environment and Canada’s obsession with and reliance on resource extraction. As one student rightly pointed out in his reflection, a common concern for students in class is the ‘economy’. But students concerns about the economy are not the same as those politicians, business leaders, and some economists raise, at least what we see in the mainstream media. They are concerned that we continue to defer to an economic model that has proven not to work for most people in the world.

While many would dismiss their concerns as the naivety of youth, these students are right to be concerned. In the recently released book titled Capital in the 21st Century, French economist Thomas Piketty also raises serious concerns about our economic model and where it is taking us. Recently translated into English, Capital in the 21st century is fast becoming a bestseller and putting rightwing commentators on the defensive.

In this article from the Guardian, Len McCluskey sums up Piketty’s assessment of capitalism at work:

“Piketty’s argument is that, in an economy where the rate of return on capital outstrips the rate of growth, inherited wealth will always grow faster than earned wealth. So the fact that rich kids can swan aimlessly from gap year to internship to a job at father’s bank/ministry/TV network – while the poor kids sweat into their barista uniforms – is not an accident: it is the system working normally.”

American economist and Nobel prize winner Paul Krugman has reviewed Piketty’s book in the New York Times and is interviewed by Bill Moyers about it. Both the article and interview are worth a look and will likely inspire you to rush out to pick up the book.

Piketty gives startling evidence of movement away from democracy to a global “drift toward oligarchy”—a power structure in which power effectively rests with a small number of people. Piketty prescribes a number of solutions to reverse the trend—in particular taxation of wealth and inheritance, a serious increase in taxes on capital and high incomes to allow for redistribution of wealth.

While some are calling Piketty’s prescription for change utopian—because the powerful will never agree to it— others are more hopeful that not only is it possible, it is essential.

This brings me back to what I learned from students this term.

Although we may get tired, cynical and hopeless in a world that has become increasingly driven by greed; optimism, hope and a desire for change, and yes, a bit of naivety, is necessary if we are to create a better world.

Many thanks to all my students for your inspiration!