Is there room for both critical thinking and hope in today’s pedagogy?

Over at Catholic Moral Philosophy, Jessica Wrobeleski writes about her reactions to Pope Benedict’s World Day of Peace 2012, “Educating Young People in Justice and Peace.” As she notes, part of my Christmas vacay is usually spent worrying about spring classes, and this year was no exception. I have a very large class to teach, and it’s a class that I did not succeed with the last time I taught it.

The best way to think about the class is, I think, urban theory for beginners. There is nothing, nothing the average American student hates more than theory, unless it’s their theory instructor.

And the class is required.

So you have hide the theory under lots of distractions, like broccoli under Velveeta.

Wrobeleski hits some highlights from the message:

Education is “the most interesting and difficult adventure in life,” and consequently calls for responsibility and sacrifice on the part of both students and educators (2). Moreover, the Pope identifies the tension between youthful idealism and the apprehension of the next generation at the magnitude of problems in the world today, and he councils young people not to yield to discouragement in the face of difficulties or to abandon themselves to false solutions. If education in justice and peace is to bear fruit through action, it will require the courage and resilient hope that allows both young and old to “look at the world in its truth and not be overwhelmed by tribulation…

“Being not overwhelmed by tribulation” strikes me as a very difficult balance at this stage in our world. On the one hand, we have tremendous reason for hope: the changes that we see throughout the world, in the Middle East and Africa, appear to be a new variety of liberal democracy. On the other hand, our existing liberal democracies appear to be bogged down in ideology and extremism, ineffectual. Students are looking out at a terrible job market. Can I ethically say that there is a future in planning when the public sector appears to be crumbling?

I tend to approach the issues of planning very critically in my classes. My students in planning start out in the world with a large dose of belief in their own value as philosopher-kings. Yes, the world is destroyed, but that’s the fault of you old people who drive too much and eat meat and fail to ride bicycles. We shall fix it. They are ready followers of the New Urbanism’s promises: when we visionaries shape cities like a potter shapes clay on a the wheel, people will live right.

Much of my pedagogy in planning theory tries to get students to be critical of their idea of themselves as philosopher-kings–special agents with special knowledge who, given enough power, would fix the world–to understand the tensions in play and at balance in the democratic governance of urban life. It’s extremely frustrating, though, for students. It’s very hard, in the scope of a few weeks in planning theory, to convey the idea that, in the words of Gandhi: “Everything we do is futile, but we must do it anyway.”

Go too far in critical thinking, and students tune you out or become embittered: “I came here to learn how I could change the world and you’re telling me I can’t.” By pointing out the flaws and cracks of our ability to affect change, some students fall into believing that just because something is not perfect–or even deeply flawed—we shouldn’t do it.

Instead, I hope to foster humility–of fear and trembling, so to speak–in the proposal of social and environmental changes designed to solve social problems. No, I won’t sell you my high speed rail based on stopping climate change and the idea that it will cost you nothing–oh, unicorns from outer space and the federal government will pay for it. Instead: high speed rail will offer a pleasant way to travel between cities without driving. It works well elsewhere. If we all chip in about $75 to $100 a year for the next 25 years, we’ll be able to have it. What do you think?”

I find that the usual pedagogical answers to Wrobeleski’s notes here to be unsatisfying. There is the standard urbanist’s exhortation that you should “just get students out to experience the city.” It’s too facile. It’s easy to partake of a city’s places as a consumer. And many of these students live in Los Angeles, for crying out loud, and since they are undergraduates, they probably grew up here. That means getting out there with new eyes, which is what education is for.

I’m similarly dubious of expecting students to volunteer via service learning: when service is required in a class, it’s not really voluntary and it’s not really service (it’s obligation) and, just as it can lead to the prized anecdote of service learning teachers—i.e., students discovering their long-term calling in service—it can saddle already overburdened service organizations with clueless students who helicopter in and out for their own purposes. Moreover, not every student is themselves in a position where they can really give. In a class of 70 people, there’s a good likelihood that at least some of them will themselves be in a fragile place emotionally or financially, where they, themselves, need more than they can give.

Over the next week, I’ll be redesigning the class from beginning to end, given the fiasco it was last time. We’ll see what strategies I come up with.

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