Social Ecology n 1: a coherent radical critique of current social, political, and anti-ecological trends. 2: a reconstructive, ecological, communitarian, and ethical approach to society.
Last semester after teaching political sociology for the first time, I found a website that closely articulated the view I was developing of what political sociology could mean as an environment for teaching and learning in a world where self-care is overrun by addictive consumer behavior among students and faculty.
We form consumptive addictions to make conditions we actually hate bearable, thus incorporating an abuse into “normal” functioning. We use the abuse or addiction to adapt to a environment or condition that we know is not satisfying to us, that is a threat and we rarely act to eliminate the threat. We abuse substances, activities and our own self-care in order to make the threat to our labor “disappear” versus using our knowledge to make requests and counter-offers to eliminate the threat so we can eventually get what we need to thrive.
Instead I see students (and many faculty) functioning as laborers as in a factory. We are not tinkerers or thinkers finding ways to support what we need in the supposed marketplace of ideas that institutions of higher learning are thought to be. Instead we trade our ability to think for an ability to tolerate an unsustainable labor which requires a little thinking as possible–we take the easy route somehow thinking we are enhancing our effort, our labor. All this is happening at the expense of our well-being socially and biologically.
Here is an area where we need to be both teaching and learning about what Barry Schwartz calls “moral jazz” or improvising inside of real world problems in our educational settings and the environments for learning we teachers desire to actually create. I would swap “ethical” for moral to side step the religious zealotry that often accompanies moral standards. But Schwartz offers his own warnings:
I’ve been trying to help students notice these kinds of things, to start thinking vs. thoughting about what they do and how they do it, in my anthro courses or any course I teach. We cannot keep allowing a culture to thrive that robs us of our vitality, energy and thinking.
THE WALKING DEAD – NO DOSE
A friend and teacher from Nashville shared with me that during college she traded thinking for no-dose, sex, and alcohol. Dancing was one of the only things that kept her her college mind and body–present, awake and perhaps thinking.
Yesterday my students clued me in to the 21st century versions of no-dose. RedBull and 5 hour Energy drink (NOW in 5 different flavors!! as an ad announced on NPR this morning). And what is not so publicly announced, the illegal selling of “study drugs” like Adderall, a prescription drug for people diagnosed with ADHD. There is an unethical ecology, an invisible economy sucking the lifeblood of learning out of the minds of emerging adults. It is stunting not only their cognitive development but I would assert their biological growth and their access to their own wisdom and self-care. It no doubt has long-term costs for the short term gain but we are teaching on top of this for the sake of testing for the right answers.
This as a serious and political risk to the sustainability of our democracy and the well-being of our futures as individuals.
In the introductory anthropology courses I teach, I recently gave an assignment designed to get students to notice a “drinking ritual” like drinking milk before bed, sharing arabic coffee every morning with family, or drinking gatorade around going to the gym. I wanted them to observe their own participation (participant-observation) in repeated “performance” and begin to notice the ritualized behaviors and the web of significance that “ritual” lives in beyond the personal meaning they attach to it. To notice how they learned it, what beliefs are attached to it, what cultural knowledge they associate with it and to study the material culture associated with it, too (i.e., the glasses, mugs, water, Pepsi, etc) .
One student from Singapore wrote that she limits herself to one can of Redbull a day “for health reasons” and she noticed that drinking it has been an “acquired” taste. We discussed her micro-ethnograpy in class yesterday but I didn’t unpack the way people tend to use “acquired taste” culturally. Usually something we dislike at first but I would assert that some external and usually social factor leads us to give in to liking it. That was beer for me.
The Singaporean, a recent immigrant who is fluent in US youth culture now, wrote:
[Redbull] is something i picked up very recently through the influence of friends here in NYC.” She has developed an acquired taste for Redbull. “I never like soda and Redbull feels and tastes like one. However, it gives you energy just enough to pull you through that last class, or that last hour with efficiency over the roof. … I started being very fond of the frizz and the taste. Now I can’t get enough of it.”
To draw attention to the learning process (acculturation) or what sociologists call “resocialization” during adulthood, I mentioned that what she described seems like addiction. Wikipedia defines “addiction” as:
The continued use of a mood altering substance or behavior despite adverse dependency consequences … Addictions can include, but are not limited to, drug abuse, exercise abuse, sexual activity and gambling. Classic hallmarks of addiction include … preoccupation with substance or behavior, continued use despite consequences, and denial. Habits and patterns associated with addiction are typically characterized by immediate gratification (short-term reward), coupled with delayed deleterious effects (long-term costs).
Barry Schwartz argues that it is not teaching more ethics courses but we need more
A wise person is like a jazz musician — using the notes on the page, but dancing around them, inventing combinations that are appropriate for the situation and the people at hand. A wise person knows how to use these moral skills in the service of the right aims. To serve other people, not to manipulate other people. And finally, perhaps most important, a wise person is made, not born. Wisdom depends on experience, and not just any experience. You need the time to get to know the people that you’re serving. You need permission to be allowed to improvise, try new things, occasionally to fail and to learn from your failures. And you need to be mentored by wise teachers.
What will it take to start noticing that we as professors and teachers are pushing the environments towards this kind of substance abuse as we keep our focus only on our own classes – silo thinking – and not on being part of a sustainable environment of learning? Working hard and testing knowledge is not the answer in and of itself but there is something happening that is causing this work hard, no sleep culture to thrive while students are languishing emotionally and I would venture to say cognitively, as are some professors.
We cannot keep pushing our bodies, which house our minds, with no long term cost to our culture and society.
American psychologist Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of human needs” model claims that people don’t have access to leisure until they take care of all of the essentials in their lives. One theory that has become widely accepted is that leisure is time free of obligations from work.
I actually think that it is leisure, time to think, that is missing from our educational environments for cognitive well-being. It is said that leisure is a universal human right but the question I am struck by is where do we get the time to actually notice that things are not working or not aligned for your growth and long term development as a citizen or a human being?
Perhaps there is a leisure justice issue here or a cognitive-leisure issue that we have yet to articulate but it is a ethical issue in my mind. There is a ethical economy of learning in higher ed to consider where students get both rest and knowledge, time to think and grow in their abilities to see their own faulty thinking, and to apply the new insights into their lives.