Teaching Sociology

This morning around 6 I woke up and in that wonderful half-sleep just before I get up and feel the pain in my back wrenching me back to reality I thought about how many times I started the college term in the Fall of every year for the past 36 years with the same lecture.  It’s about how I teach sociology and how my students learn and don’t learn.  I teach sociology, but right now I want to focus on the teaching part of what  I do and not the sociology part.  I’ve also taught 1st year (freshman) French, Canadian HIstory, Anthropology and Sociology, but over the last 25 years or so, pretty much exclusively Sociology.  So I know that my teaching style is consistent across various subjects.  I teach using humour (at least I think I’m funny at least some of the time) and a highly critical approach to things.  After teaching for so long I know that some of my students, at least, appreciate my teaching style.  Funny thing is, I don’t think I can teach people how to teach like I do.  It’s not a teachable skill.  It’s a skill that comes from a confluence of life happenings, genetics, upbringing and experience. To know when to chide a student or make a joke or criticize the textbook is something I’ve learned over the years.  Most of the time, it works.  I don’t use notes when I teach.  Teaching for me is a dialogue between me, the text writers and my students.  I don’t think I could learn that at teacher’s college.  It depends on my personality as much as my knowledge.  It helps that I love what I do, that I have a deep connection to what I know and study and that I have respect for my students and their struggles.  Every year, with a new set of fresh students, I tell them that every one of them has the intelligence to make it through my course and do well.

But, I tell them, there are many reasons they might not do well.  Personal troubles are at the top of the list.  Disputes with family, friends and/or lovers can really sap energy and impair concentration.  Struggles with beliefs, with what’s right or wrong, good and bad although sometimes essential for learning can leave one confused and disoriented just at a time when there is a real need for concentrated activity in studying and listening in class.  Overwhelming concern with what others’ expectations are, whether articulated or not, push away the need to work on course material.  Worry about work, finances, children, husbands, wives, parents and health all contribute to poor academic performance.  This is fodder for another blog post in the near future, but for now, I just want to convey the reality that success in school is not just a result of hard work, nor is it the achievement of one person, the student.  Success in school and university is the result of the efforts of many individuals and institutions.  The sad reality is that we don’t, as a society, care much who succeeds and who ‘fails’ at school.  We need people to do both.  It’s somewhat of a contradiction that in a society so focussed in individuality and individualism we cannot care for the single person.  No wonder people feel abandoned, frightened and angry.  We just don’t give a shit about them.

That’s what I tell my students.

Countries are about to lose their reason for being (Part 1).

Some of us, many of us, really have the sense that our country is one of the most important things that give us our identity as individuals and as cultures. But what is the origins of this thing we call ‘country’ or ‘nation-state?’ Does it ‘deserve’ our undying loyalty, love and respect?  I wrote a script for The Knowledge Network many years ago (1992 to be precise) in which I address these questions and other related ones with regard to Canada.  If I were to write it today, I wouldn’t change much, but I will update this commentary in a new post soon.  Now, read on and comment if you like.

Is Canada a Capitalist Society?  Interesting question and not as simple to answer as it seems, I think.  Generally, when this question comes up, people immediately think about Capitalism and Socialism or Communism.  Canada isn’t communist, that’s clear…but is it socialist?  Well, what does socialism mean?  Many people think of socialism as government ownership and control.  For some, socialism means no more free enterprise, no more freedom of choice and no more good life!   For others it means Medicare, EI,  Canada Pension and Social Services.  If socialism means government takeover of private business, then the W.A.C. Bennett Social Credit rabidly free enterprise government of  B.C. was one of the first socialist governments in Canada.  It took over B.C. Electric and made it into B.C. Hydro, took over responsibility for ferries in the province and monopolized the sale of alcohol.  Well, most people would never think of the Social Credit Party as socialist, but there you have it.  Just kidding of course…but it still leaves us with the problem of coming up with a way of deciding whether or not Canada is a capitalist society.  Is it mostly capitalist with some socialist policies?  Can we talk of shades of pink, or is it one or the other?  Well, maybe there’s another way of approaching the whole question.


Let’s stand way back and check out the view from there.  We are very accustomed in this part of the world to seeing things from the perspective of our countries.  I’m not saying that we’re nationalists, necessarily, but that our frame of reference is our country.  We think of “Canadian” society, the Canadian educational system, the Canadian political system, the Canadian legal system, the Canadian transportation system, etc.  We view Canada as an entity, a thing in itself.  We use Canada as “containing” our society.


There is another way of thinking about these things.  It is very difficult, though, because we take our conventional view of things completely for granted.  We have difficulty even conceiving of another way of seeing things.   It requires a real perceptual shift.  But let’s try this on.  Think of the concept of Capitalism as a basic reference point rather than the idea of Canada. In this conceptual scheme capitalism has time and space dimensions but I want you to think about it more as a set of institutions or way of doing things, organizing ourselves and thinking.  The primary institutions of modern capitalism are private property, business enterprise, the machine-process, the class system, wages, the division of labor, the market and the price system.   Taken together, these institutions, along with others, make up what we might call the economic basis of capitalist society.  I’m not talking about people here, but about the ways that have evolved by which we relate to each other in society.  The primary institutions are those concerned with how we organize ourselves to make a living…that being the basis for the rest of social organization.  We have to make a living as societies before we can do anything else.   In order to survive…and this is an evolutionary perspective…capitalism generates a whole range of other institutions, or it appropriates them, borrows, begs or steals them historically from previous societies.  These institutions  we usually define as being political, social, legal, educational, etc… And they evolve  themselves and together…like all the organs of your body evolve together.


From this perspective, the way we organize official learning, in classrooms with the teacher as authority and children conceived of as empty vessels to be filled with standardized knowledge is a basic educational institution of modern capitalism.  Whole organizations, plants and facilities we call  schools, colleges and universities are created to service this institution which itself serves to ensure the survival of capitalism.  What kids learn in school is more important than just math and social studies.  In the way the school is organized, in the way they are regimented and disciplined, kids learn their eventual place as workers within a capitalist society. It could hardly be otherwise.  An educational institution that would contradict the basic way that we organize ourselves to make a living wouldn’t last long.


Countries as we know them are political institutions that arose in conjunction with the rise of capitalism in Europe.  They are the products of the growth of capitalism:  they exist to regulate the flow of capital and labour; to provide infrastructures such as roads for the movement of capital and labor (not always successfully); to defend capitalism, or sometimes the interests of a group of capitalists in competition with another group; to provide a context for law and order and the right “climate” for investment, etc… Once in existence along with the institution of citizenship, countries tend to legitimize the notion that citizenship is a status more important than that of worker.    Citizenship, with all of its caveats and rights,  is the political/legal expression of your right to sell your labour on a market.


Canada, then, is by definition a capitalist institution.  It “fits” into a now global system of political institutions that exist to perpetuate capitalism…and make no mistake about it, capitalism is the more fundamental institution here.  It makes little sense to speak of “Canadian” capitalism or even of “Canadian” society, for that matter.  Canada, the political institution, is part of a global capitalist society.  It makes much more sense to speak of the role of the Canadian state in the perpetuation and  survival of the growing capitalist global system.  If the government takes over the operations of a losing propositions such as B.C. Electric, then it does so to ensure that capitalism can still grow and prosper.  Capitalism needs cheap power.  There’s no money in it, but it is nonetheless necessary.  Why not get workers, as citizens and taxpayers, to subsidize it?    If the government sets up systems to train potential workers (i.e., the school system), to support unemployed workers, to nurse them back to health, to provide them with pensions upon retirement, it relieves the pressure from the capitalist to do so, a pressure that the slave master or the lord of the manor had in totality with regard to the well-being of his slaves or serfs.  So, in a big way, the governments in our country help to manage the working class.  And through the tax system arrange to have the working class cover the expenses for its own management and even cover the costs of capitalist risk-taking itself, again through the tax system.


This may sound cynical and negative, but I don’t think it is.  Nor do I think that the system stinks and that all capitalists and politicians are lying, good for nothing exploiters of the working class.  I’d rather be a worker with only half of my waking life in the service of someone else than a slave with my whole being and life in the service of someone else.  Besides, capitalists and politicians are harnessed to the needs of capitalism as we all are…much as all the cells in a human body are harnessed for the survival of the body as a whole…and the whole thing will live just as long as it has not exhausted all the resources it has to keep it alive.  Countries are one of those resources that serve the ends of capitalist survival.  Canada is one of those resources.

Privatization, Apple and Wealth Beyond Imagination

John’s question: Isn’t it fair to say that “capital” (as in, portable property not necessarily tied to wealth in the form of land) is inherently about privatization? If so, a capitalist society can do little other than drift toward further privatization, no?

My answer: Capital is a complex concept and Marx defines it in many ways including relating to it as crystallized labour.  Marx argues that more and more capital derived from human productive activity is finding its way into the coffers of the ruling class.  As Marx notes, the capitalist mode of production is based on the exploitation of labour-power by which surplus value is produced.  Profit comes from surplus value and becomes capital. This applies to individual capitalists but Marx intends that it should apply principally to the ruling class as a whole.  So, privatization, as much as anything means that the working class is getting less and less of ‘its’ share of the proceeds of social production.  It’s being appropriated by the ruling class which, for Marx, includes capitalists, of course, but also the state.  [The nature of the state and the ruling class is not by any means agreed upon by all Marxists. I may go into this in another post later.]  But that’s not how we’ve come to understand the concept these days, at least not entirely.  

Nowadays, we consider privatization as the simple movement of assets from the government to ‘private enterprise’ or business as in the case of the privatization of prisons.  The transfer of public land, formerly ‘tree farm licenses’ (TFLs) to business corporations is another example.  That kind of activity is proceeding apace.  Harper is smacking his lips, there’s so much potential here and, believe me, we’re nowhere near seeing the end of it.  But that’s not the whole story.

Essentially, capital is capital and it does not have to be concentrated in the ruling class, in the hands of a few, so to speak.  It can and will be collectively controlled according to Marx.  The irony for ruling classes throughout history has been that the more wealth gets concentrated in their hands, the harder it is for them to continue to accumulate capital. The margins get smaller and smaller the greater the concentration becomes.  Where are we now?

Well, the concentration of capital is proceeding apace globally.  Apple, my favourite computer company, has so much capital (in the form of cash) that it has to seriously consider what to do with it.  It’s giving a lot to shareholders.  It could lower its prices or pay its workers more in the sweatshops they work in all over the globe, but that would just be wrong…it would not be keeping the wealth in the right hands.  

Welcome to Duh Fodder Land!

No doubt this will get off to a slow start, but my term is over soon and it will be my last so I can launch into this thing more vigorously.  Of course I won’t be able to avoid having my tongue firmly planted in my cheek the whole time.  If anything, there’s a need for more humour in this world.  As soon as I get my new video camera, I will do a regular rant and post it here.  Stay tuned!