Guilt and the Global Economy

I’m teaching a class this summer, new to me (and fairly new to the
School) on Poverty in the Global Economy. The title of the class, actually, is the Globalization of Poverty, but that suggests, to me, the global diffusion of poverty, which is quite different than what the master syllabus outlines and what I intend to teach, but that’s a whole different topic…

I’m excited about this class; even though I dislike the summer format, really, because it is so condensed as to be pretty immediately overwhelming to both student and instructor, I have an outlined planned that I think (fingers crossed) will really work: lots of class activities, debates, discussion, videos, guest speakers. We’re going to cover global health (especially HIV/AIDS), the Millennium Development Goals, the role of international financial institutions (World Trade Organization, World Bank, International Monetary Fund), grassroots anti-poverty action, migration and the global economy, the impact of the current financial crisis, global aid and debt, the role of violence in perpetrating economic disaster…OK, so it may still be pretty immediately overwhelming.

I’m sure that I’ll have more thoughts on those topics, and how to communicate them effectively to students (or not) throughout the rest of the month. One of my greatest challenges is to convey a sense of relevance and integration, given that these are topics, at least in this global context, that are quite literally foreign to Bachelors social work students, who tend to be somewhat parochially focused. But the challenge that I’m facing this week, as I go through my notes for final course preparations, is how to cultivate a sense of shared destiny, common responsibility, interdependence, without crippling my students with a middle-class guilt that will choke out all meaningful praxis.

If you’ve ever traveled on a “Reality Tour”, so to speak, you know the paralysis of which I speak. When you first come back to the U.S., you have trouble eating (because you can’t stop thinking about all of the hunger you saw); you obsessively check labels on everything (thinking about the working conditions where it was produced); you interrupt your friends with morose commentary about the number of children who have died in the past hour of diarrheal disease.

Conscious, yes, which is arguably preferable to the oblivion in which many of us live much of the time, but not too conducive to the kind of real solidarity-building and righteous campaigning for social change that economic, social, and political realities demand. I’ve had many such experiences, and they are very much on my mind as I put together this class.

How do I make the tragedies real without making victims out of the courageous people who live them? How do I highlight the complicity of the U.S., particularly our trade arrangements, without romanticizing nationalistic economic development? How do I steer students towards promising anti-poverty policy without minimizing the intractability of the desperation? How do I make it connect to their work without oversimplifying?

I don’t expect anyone to have the magic answers for me; I am hopeful that my students and I will hit upon some of them as we struggle through the material together, but it’s a quandary that I think anyone who endeavors to teach about poverty and need in a way that seeks to aid, not further exploit, those who are subjected to them, must face. And I’d welcome anyone’s thoughts about how to tackle it.


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