Socialism for Sophomores

Peter Wood

NAS recently looked into the Social Justice Education masters and doctoral degree programs at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. We inadvertently misled our readers. We thought we had touched the nadir, the point of lowest possible descent in a university’s effort to become a faculty of flim-flam radical ideology. We were wrong. UMass Amherst has already gone further. The Social Thought and Political Economy interdisciplinary undergraduate program, abbreviated STPEC, has outdone the Social Justice degree programs in offering a descent into radical ideology pure and simple.

According to its website, STPEC “encourages students to engage in a critical examination of society.” That sounds good. We at NAS also favor effort to examine society—and the university—critically. The task requires an open mind, historical understanding, the disciplined application of reason, and scrupulous use of evidence. But what exactly does STPEC have in mind? STPEC doesn’t keep us in suspense for long. As soon as you enter the website, you see a single red star, of the sort that long festooned Red Army hats, punctuating the title of the program.  The star appears again in a photograph that flashes onto the screen of the homepage, as perhaps Marx, Engels, the Soviet Union, and socialism in general are meant to flash through your soon-to-be radicalized consciousness.

The major goes on to describe itself:

Many of the issues STPEC students explore involve relations between individuals and society. STPEC courses may deal with issues such as freedom and the state, structural inequality in the economy, work and work relations, the relationship of Western to non-Western cultures, the interrelationship of racism, sexism, and class oppression, the psychodynamics of politics, and theories of social change.

Neither the title of the program nor this description do justice to the actual program. The term “social thought” brings to mind the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought, the home in years past of figures such as Edward Shils, Allan Bloom, and Saul Bellow, T.S. Eliot, and Friedrich Hayek. It is, so to speak, one of the prestige addresses in American higher education. “Political economy” is a term rooted in 17th and 18th century philosophy and calls to mind figures such as Adam Smith and Thomas Malthus—as well as Karl Marx. It has been dusted off recently as a way to designate the studies of the interplay between economics and politics. The UMass folks in appropriating both terms are making a play for highbrow intellectual respectability. Likewise, when they say the program “may deal with issues such as freedom and the state,” the reader may excusably think that these will be courses of hefty historical and philosophical substance.   

But, no. STPEC might be better described as socialism-for-sophomores. But not just socialism. It is more like a Dairy Queen cone with jimmies. It is the usual colorful sprinkling of racism, sexism, oppression, social change. Identity group grievance adds sparkle to the frozen confection of distributive justice. And so we see how easy it is to add a socialist mentality to a multiculturalist religion.

The program’s director, Sara Lennox, studied at the University of Frankfurt during the 1960s, when ‘Frankfurt School’ theorists of neo-Marxists were winning attention for their critiques of contemporary capitalism. The biographical connection is not incidental. Ms. Lennox’s bio on the UMass website explains, “it was Lennox’s enthusiasm for the Frankfurt School that sparked the STPEC Program’s interest in her.”

STPEC has a list of seven associated regular faculty, none of whom are teaching for the program this fall. Of those who are teaching this fall, only one has a full-time academic position at the University of Massachusetts. The program falls within UMass Amherst’s college of social and behavioral sciences, which mandates that its students satisfy a fifteen-credit “Global Education” requirement. Global Ed offers such courses as “Labor and a Global Economy,” “Spiritual Autobiography,” and “The Good Society.”

In addition to pre-requisites, students must pass six classes, complete an internship, and take four STPEC seminars. “To accommodate students' broad interests and diverse backgrounds,” however, “course requirements are flexible.”

So what exactly do STPEC majors study on their way to a major in Social Thought and Political Economy? Economics maybe? Philosophy? The classics of social thought?  

Yes. To some extent. The prerequisites include introductions to Microeconomics and Macroeconomics and there is a History 101 course titled “Western Thought Since 1600.” For more advanced courses, the STPEC intellectual terrain looks distinctly less traditional. STPEC seems to have combed the UMass curriculum for courses that highlight Marxism, play up identity politics, or evoke a history of oppressive Western imperialism.

On a page that sports a thoughtful photograph of a bearded student holding a piece of paper with the words “Hegemony = Civil Society,” the STPEC courses are listed. It would be a labor of many pages to decode the entire list, but the names of some courses are sufficiently clear: “Black Marxism,” “Gender and Power/Global Context,” “Imperialism/Hawaii,” “Empire, Race, and the Philippines,” “Cuba Transnational,” “Race and Urban Political Economy,” “New Class of Racisms,” “US Mexican Borderland,” and “Caribbean Women Writing Identity Politics.” 

But STPEC does have its own courses, traveling under bland titles such as “Junior Seminar I and II”, and “Writing for Critical Consciousness,” and the slightly less bland, “Neo-Colonial Present: Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine,” and “Black Politics: Cartographies of Race and Class.” The bland titles, however, enclose some chili pepper course descriptions. Junior Seminar I, for example, is a year-long course that focuses on:

the politico-philosophical-experiential foundations of liberal, radical, and anti-colonial worldviews paying attention to the ways in which ideologies and political consciousness are constructed in relation to historical events and in oppositional social movements, such as colonization, the French and Haitian Revolutions, the rise of the modern/colonial capitalist-patriarchal system and various forms of pre-20th century resistance.

Perhaps it is worth noting that the course doesn’t seek to demonstrate the existence of the “modern/colonial capitalist-patriarchal system.” Rather, it takes the existence of such a system for granted and asks STPEC students to spend their year considering “questions of decolonization of social theory and liberation of the political imagination.” Translation: We’ll teach you how to think like real revolutionaries by freeing your mind from the chains of objective social science and economics. 

One of the seminars, “Writing for Critical Consciousness,” fulfills the University’s junior year writing requirement. “Critical consciousness” is a term drawn from the Brazilian radical Paulo Freire who argues that education, properly conceived, is subversive and ought to aim at endowing students with a keen perception of their own oppression and a thirst for overcoming it. “Critical consciousness,” is a fancier way of saying revolutionary fervor.

Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968) has been a chestnut for pedagogical Leftists for decades, but is still used as a textbook for La Raza studies in public K-12 schools in Tucson, AZ. (NAS will soon write further about that pedagogy.)

Writing for Critical Consciousness “focuses on individual development of voice.” Leading the seminar is a “junior instructor” who encourages peer editing and suggests that students “consider issues of language and dialect, Black English, Standard Written English and feminism” in their editing.

STPEC students are required to complete a practicum, which entails an internship and a final paper analyzing the experience. Although the instructor recommends various themes in writing the assignment, “all students are required to apply an analysis of race, class, and gender.”

Furthermore, STPEC suggests that students ask certain questions in examining their internships, such as, “How are labor relations structured at your placement site?”, “Do you feel that the organization’s use of your labor was exploitative?”, and “What are the forces for social change within the organization?”

The program on Social Thought and Political Economy was founded in 1972; since then it has graduated over 750 students. In the last few years it has sponsored events such as the “Anti-Oppression Network Meeting,” the “Patriarchal Logics of the Coloniality of Power” workshop, and the “Addressing Eurocentrisms in the Academy” workshop.  

Amidst all this talk of power and oppression, STPEC considers itself the little guy at U Mass Amherst, the underdog struggling for validation. On its history page, below a photo of students bearing a banner that reads, “Without struggle there is no progress,” STPEC explains its woes. “STPEC has been forced to rely upon extremely limited university resources,” and “STPEC has no faculty appointments, and its director Sara Lennox is the only faculty member with a formal long-term association with STPEC.”

This indeed seems a genuine hardship. We at the NAS know something about building counter-cultural centers. We have been working hard for fifteen years to establish programs that focus on free institutions and Western civilization on campuses around the country, and have discovered how limited the institutional resources often are for such marginal topics. And right now there is a faculty-led furor at the University of Chicago over the creation of a Milton Friedman Institute. But STPEC should take cheer. Even if it doesn’t have all the resources it would like, it is a thriving program and is getting students ready for the revolution of 1917. 

STPEC no doubt regrets having to participate in the exploitative capitalist system of recruiting instructors on a semester-by-semester basis, and, what’s worse, inducting graduate students as instructors when they could be better employed as community activists. STPEC students, however, don’t mind building on Wobbly foundations. Students who graduate from the program go on to be (among others) carpenters, groundskeepers, wooden boat repair persons, and teachers of yoga. “Since a STPEC education focuses on everything,” writes Sara Lennox, “a STPEC degree can give our students the background to pursue any career they want!” Hmm…well, we haven’t yet noticed the rise of the social revolution in America, so apparently that’s not the career of choice so far.

If you think STPEC is trading in wornout ideas from another era, you could be right. Back in the days when the Beatles were still a band, the improve comedy group Firesign Theatre issued a record “How Can You be in Two Places at Once When You’re Not Anywhere at All” (1969). It always helped to be two tokes over the line to enjoy Firesign Theatre, but the cover of Two Places at Once was a real hoot. There’s this picture of Marx, but it’s like Groucho! And a picture of Lenin, but it’s John Lennon!

Firesign’s visual jest has survived over the years and, yes, it emerges again on the STPEC website. 

 Perhaps in the world of STPEC, the old jokes are still the good jokes.

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