Emilio Horner is a political science senior and Mustang News liberal columnist. These views do not reflect the editorial coverage of Mustang News.
One of the 20th century’s most prolific ballet choreographers, George Balanchine, would tell his dancers, “Don’t think, just do.” Similarly, golfer Dave Hill once claimed “Golf is like sex. You can’t be thinking about the mechanics of the act while you are performing.”
Doing, or acting, has been historically pedagogically opposed to thought, and I claim that Cal Poly’s Learn by Doing motto/cliché, emphasized ad nauseam, is no different.
Over the past 35 years since the Reagan revolution swept in a new wave of anti-intellectualism in the United States, “doing” hasn’t been a problem. We did plenty of doing when we deregulated the financial industry, destroyed the public sector and expanded the military industrial complex.
The goal should not be learning how to do tasks; it should be learning to question what tasks are worth doing, or what tasks we should morally be undertaking. It turns out David Foster Wallace was right when he told us the old, and somewhat patronizing, liberal arts cliché of teaching you “how to think” is instead true.
There is part of the Joseph Heller novel “Catch-22″ when a colonel forces his men to shoot skeet for eight hours a month claiming it was excellent training. When asked what it was training them for, he replied, “It trained them to shoot skeet.”
And this turns out to be a problem at Cal Poly, a polytechnic university with an emphasize on “doing,” that we don’t respect the liberal arts as much as we should, or address the problematic aspects of the systems our educations are throwing us into. Excessive, ultimately existential, “doing” that characterizes STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields in a capitalist paradigm has led to ecological disaster and massive economic wealth polarization.
The liberal arts is by no means innocent and is in fact largely guilty of the same problem. The neoliberal model has bastardized the practical and beneficial aspects of applied sociology and political science to the point that systems of “doing” reinforce the problems that it attempts to eradicate.
No longer are governmental actors the ones attempting to solve problems in the status quo, but instead non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have been elevated due to the privatization of the public interest and the depoliticizing of the private sphere. This came about in the post-war era when the top-down approach to growth was replaced with a bottom-up developmental model. NGOs, which a number of the more altruistic liberal arts students end up working for, have replaced the state as the main actor that responds to the needs and demands of the marginalized sections of society to dire consequences.
One problem comes about in that multiple groups have equal part “NGO representation.” This includes business and corporate industries that are technically NGOs but are linked to pharmaceutical, pesticide and tobacco companies.
Instead of this pluralism being democratic, civil society is dominated by private interests, and the pro-poor and anti-capitalist voices are not effectively heard.
A second problem arises from the switch in focus over the last 35 years from deep social change through popular organizing to simply attempting workable, or “doable,” solutions. The poor are empowered to be entrepreneurial similar to the American lie of “pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps.” This view leads to the marketization of social identities and effectively eliminates the idea of public goods.
Finally, it turns out that the loyal opposition is still part of the system. In the neoliberal NGO model one is still participating in systemic oppression of peoples, and the reinforcement of norms and hierarchies, even as he or she attempts to subvert them. Similarly, current powerful liberals, like George Soros, a hedge fund manager by day and a liberal activist by night, don’t actually cause, or even desire, actual systemic change, and ultimately cover up deep-rooted issues under the guise of reform.
Unfortunately, there is no simple solution as the left has struggled to find a non-Keynesian or welfare state solution, to the rise of neoliberalism. Especially because hierarchies and systems of domination have a way of reasserting themselves as was seen in the communist nations of the 20th century. However, if the left desires a solution, it’s time to recognize there’s been enough “doing” in the world.
It’s time to stop doing and start thinking. This does not mean sit around and watch people suffer, but it does mean it’s time to question the current social activist model in a nuanced and focused way.
Remember this needs not be utopian; we can offer practical solutions to real problems in the 21st century. For now though, we should follow the advice of philosopher Slavoj Zizek and “don’t act, just think.” And of course, welcome back!