Useful Idiots at UNC-Chapel Hill

, Jay Shalin, Leave a comment

Claims that professors use their classroom positions to indoctrinate rather than educate their students crop up frequently in today’s polarized political climate. A geography course at Chapel Hill appears to be a perfect example.

During the 2007 “Maymester” (a shortened term that takes place in May and early June), instructor Jason Moore taught “Geographical Issues in the Developing World” (GEOG 130). The course is a requirement for geography majors choosing the “Geography of Human Activity” area of concentration and can also serve as an elective to fill various General Education requirements for UNC students. It is offered in the spring and fall semesters with instructors other than Moore. The course seems fairly popular, with all 40 seats filled in the spring of 2007 semester. Thirteen of 24 seats were taken during Moore’s May session.

The description in the course catalogue indicates that “Geographical Issues” focuses on three themes. The first is about population trends, including growth, health, and migration patterns. The second concerns the sustenance of populations, including water supplies and the transition from traditional self-sufficient communities to technically advanced market economies. The third involves issues concerning urbanization and poverty. There’s no hint of any political orientation or agenda.

Once you read the syllabus, however, it becomes clear that the course is not so much about the study of geography as an objective social science. Instead, it seems intended to plant seeds of doubt about, or even hostility to, free markets, international trade and the United States. The actual readings confirm this impression. This article examines the course. Moore was contacted but declined to give verbal comment or respond in writing to a list of questions.

The revealing phrase in the syllabus is Moore’s stated intention to teach the course from “one interpretation” only, although he doesn’t actually name the interpretation. He suggests that the interpretation has “five themes.” Not only is there no direct correspondence between the three themes in the catalogue and the five in the syllabus, but the two descriptions sound as though they’re for different courses: one an objective course on geography and the other one an overtly political, interdisciplinary course mixing elements of history, economics, and political theory with some geography.

First among these five themes is the concept that “national societies do not ‘develop’ but only become richer or poorer within the modern world system.” This suggests that economic development is a zero-sum game; that wealthy countries take their profits at the expense of lesser nations. The syllabus states that “[p]rosperity in the core zones of the world-system has always been inextricably linked to poverty in the peripheries.”

Another theme is about inequality within countries, particularly the United States. Moore states his intention to examine “the relations…that create wealth and poverty,” including “imperialism, neoliberalism, capitalism, and the social forces that contest the world historical movements.” An additional theme suggests that the course employs “sustained historical analysis” of “these geographies” to “sort out just what is new from what is old in the present conjecture.”

The syllabus included an extensive reading list of 40 selections, whereby Moore’s “one interpretation” is unmasked At least 22 of the 40 selections were written by individuals with connections to a publication called Monthly Review. Moore himself has been a contributor to the journal, primarily as a book reviewer. The publication’s editorial slant is unapologetically Marxist, with strong Maoist inclinations. Several contributors to the list of recommended readings in “Geographic Issues” served as the chief editors of the journal, including Harry Magdoff. Magdoff openly declared the publication’s Maoist tendencies in an interview in the May 1999 issue: “Oh, there was a Maoist component. There’s no question about it. There were things that Mao said that we felt were major contributions to Marxist theory and to understanding of the problems of the third world, to this day.”

Moore assigned three of his own articles. In one, entitled “The Modern World System as Environmental History? Ecology and the Rise of Capitalism,” he alludes to the theme that dominates much of his work: “I show that Wallerstein’s socio-ecological insights, coupled with Marx’s ecological critique of capitalism, prove enormously useful for rethinking environmental transformations in world-historical perspective.”

Another contributor to Moore’s reading list is Canadian author and activist Naomi Klein Her essay “Reclaiming the Commons,” based on a speech she gave at a Los Angeles rally, would seem to have little to do with the objective study of geography. “The local movements fighting privatization and deregulation need to link their campaigns into one global movement…” she implored her audience. “This movement we conjure goes by many names: anti-corporate, anti-capitalist, anti-free-trade, anti imperialist…Thousands of groups today are all working against forces whose common thread is what might be broadly termed the privatization of every aspect of life…The spirit they share is a radical reclaiming of the commons.”

“Reclaiming the Commons” was published in the New Left Review, which is edited by yet another contributor to Moore’s reading list, Mike Davis, a former Students for a Democratic Society activist and current UC-Irvine History professor. The online version of the journal describes itself as “combating capital’s current apologists….”

Davis’s contribution to the course is an article entitled “The View From Hubbert’s Peak,” which suggests that U.S. foreign policy is a conspiracy between the United States and the large oil companies. Whether Davis has a point or not, is this appropriate material for an undergraduate geography course?

Also of dubious value to geography students is the 1966 revolutionary manifesto, the “Black Panther Party Platform: What We Want and What We Believe,” with its 10-point list of demands. Among the demands were: “We want an end to the robbery by capitalists of our Black Community….”, “We want education for our people that exposes the true nature of this decadent American society….”

The preceding examples I have listed are representative of the ideas to which Moore exposed his class. If a professor teaches from “one interpretation” and consistently presents opinions declaring the rectitude of Marxism or reducing the complex activities of America to an exploitative imperialism, and that teacher praises these opinions, then it’s reasonable to suggest that he wishes his students to adopt Marxist and anti-American attitudes.

It is highly unlikely that this manner of indoctrination is desired by North Carolina’s citizens when they send their children to Chapel Hill to be educated. It is also probable that students who sign up for Geography 130 are not seeking a philosophical makeover that will place them at odds with
their families, friends, and future employers.

Jay Schalin is a writer/researcher for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in Raleigh.

 

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