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Tuesday, August 12, 2014

THERE is a set of questions from a student that is almost standard in my Sociology classes every semester. In fact, if no one will raise these queries, I would be greatly disappointed because it would mean that I have failed to drive home an important point. After lessons on the divergent perspectives on the nature of man, society, and social change; and how a certain set of ideas seek to retard human progress and how another set dare to offer hope, I wait with bated breath if the questions, phrased in a number of different ways, will be asked by a student in the course of the semester.

The gist of the important query is this: how sure was I that the better world that I am proposing would not degenerate into something worse than what we have at present because people are essentially evil, insatiable, and greedy? That maybe our perseverance in our struggle to build a better world might result to greater horrors we have yet to imagine apart from the unconscionable sacrifices of the past which seem to have been expended for naught because knowledge is power and wielding it is extremely dangerous? That, the current state of affairs, in effect, is all there is to history and human achievement?

Of course, I am paraphrasing and they usually cloak these questions not according to the terms of Hobbes, Foucault or Fukuyama as expressed above but through the idiom of the dominant ideological order as passed on to them by their priest, parents, movie idols and former teachers. But the arguments are the same. They all contain a creeping defeatism in spite of their youth. Young as they are, they seem to have been trained as effective apologists of the ruling order and these positions are their reasoning by default.


Nevertheless, the raising of these questions elicits both great fear and excitement in me as a teacher. I fear the occasion actually because they indicate a special pedagogical moment between teacher and student, one that could be passing and ephemeral. If I do not retort with a satisfying answer, then the moment of learning is lost. It is also something I always look forward to, because after these questions are expressed and depending if I handle my response well, I know that I will be experiencing the teacher’s secret voyeuristic joy - witnessing the veil of ignorance being slowly lifted from my students’ eyes.

But how do I respond to these loaded questions, you might ask? The counterargument really is to posit the idea of hope against their learned cynicism, to impart to them an ethos of dissatisfaction over their default complacency in accepting matters as they are.

First that needs to be challenged is the trap of essentialist discourse that divides man according to the dichotomies of good and evil, between the inferior and superior. There is no human nature per se and our proclivity to do harm to each other is an impulse generated by the condition of scarcity compounded by a system of social organization that is driven by inequality that envelops us all. Thus, we need to re-organize our societies in order to elevate humanity beyond the limits imposed by the present system.

And for those who fear the society of the future because of the failed experiments of the past? There is much to learn from the mistakes of those that came before us. The lesson of history, however, is not for us to wallow in grief and lay there with the dead immobilized. Instead, shouldn’t it be the case that we move forward with greater resolve in order to give meaning to their painful sacrifices? This means wielding knowledge bravely without hesitation and standing resolutely on the side of the truth of oppression and injustice.

And for those who argue that the society of the future is the society of today, I can only offer a mute but incredulous response. But not for very long. For how can you justify the current state of affairs as the apex of human achievement where 80 percent of the world’s population does not have access to vital resources that the upper 1 percent enjoy and control? Where our level of technological advancement can feed three times the world’s population and yet hunger and malnutrition are givens for a greater number of the peoples of the world? To this day, wars are waged for precious resources that will feed into the global capitalist machine that victimize many yet benefit only the few and these are cloaked as religious and ethnic wars pitting people against each other.

If the student still doesn’t get it and she is not satisfied with these answers, it does not mean that she has not learned. The lifting of the veil of ignorance actually means learning the ethos of continually asking questions and in effect, be constantly unsatisfied. When a social theorist argued that we should not judge the society of the future by the standards of today, it was more than a statement of dissatisfaction. It was ultimately an argument for hope.

Published in the Sun.Star Cagayan de Oro newspaper on August 12, 2014.


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