Here’s one of the latest of those interdisciplinary and usually heavily politicized “studies” programs on college campuses: “poverty studies,” taking its place alongside black studies, Chicano studies, women’s studies, gay studies, and the rest of the ideology-driven academic disciplines in which undergraduates and graduate students can specialize as alternatives to more traditional fields such as history and engineering. At best, poverty studies is glorified service learning, in which college students can receive academic credit for working in homeless shelters, soup kitchens, and other worthy volunteer endeavors. At worst, poverty studies means immersion in victimology, with young people being encouraged to view “society” (shorthand for American capitalism and racism) as the main reason why some people are poor.
A typical poverty studies program is that at Washington and Lee University, created in 1997 by Harlan Beckley, a Washington and Lee religion professor. Beckley teaches the program’s introductory course, Poverty 101 (he also teaches most of the other poverty studies classes at Washington and Lee, a top-rated and expensive liberal arts institution in Lexington, Va.). The good news about Beckley’s syllabus for Poverty 101 is that the reading list does not include Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, in which the well-heeled socialist author chronicles the month-long stints she spent working at Walmart and similar demeaning outfits before walking off the job in a huff. More good news is the syllabus’s numerous and rigorous paper assignments, to the point that several commenters on Rate My Professor complain that Beckley is not the pushover easy grader that they apparently expected him to be.
The bad news is that Beckley has very distinct ideas about what contributes to poverty in the United States, and they do not include welfare dependency, out-of-wedlock births, dysfunctional inner-city culture, or teachers’ union-dominated public school systems that ensure that large numbers of young people graduate from high school without basic reading and math skills. Instead, in Beckley’s view, the chief cause of American poverty is…America. His syllabus states that Poverty 101 “focuses on the United States, perhaps the most impoverished of any developed nation.”
That’s an odd characterization because, according to World Bank figures, America is actually one of the richest countries on earth, ranking fourth in gross national product per capita behind Luxembourg, Norway, and Switzerland, all of which have relatively small, heterogeneous populations in contrast to America’s heterogeneity. When GNP is adjusted to reflect the purchasing power of currencies, America comes in second behind Luxembourg and way ahead of Britain, Belgium, Canada, and other developed countries. The United States is doing pretty well for a country of more than 300 million, many of whom are recent immigrants who arrived here with next to nothing.
Beckley’s writings are also heavy on the writings of Harvard economist Amartya Sen, who believes that governments have a duty to alleviate social inequality and differences between the earning power of individuals. Not surprisingly, while some of Beckley’s students describe him as “awesome” and “a great teacher” on Rate My Professor, others accuse him of subtly penalizing students for not thinking the way he wants them to and proselytizing them to become anti-poverty activists. “Go to church instead,” one student wrote.
Professorial attempts to use their classes to mold ideological viewpoints seems to be a common feature of poverty studies (as it is in women’s studies and gay studies, for that matter). The catalogue description of “From Poverty to Power,” a poverty-studies course at the University of Notre Dame declares: “The course will challenge students to rethink the roles of a wide array of individual and institutional actors at multiple levels of society. It will explore how each has acted and could be acting in addressing issues of extreme poverty, inequality, and environmental degradation.” Lecture titles in the course bear such titles as “From Poverty to Power: How Active Citizens and Effective States Can Change the World,” “How Change Happens,” and “Power and Politics.” Another course at Notre Dame, titled “Marriage and the Family” examines “how family life is linked to…societal factors like race, class, and gender.” At Notre Dame it’s not Poverty 101 but Indoctrination 101.
The only redeeming value in all this academic drum-beating that America or capitalism or both are responsible for the fact that the poor are always with us is that students who pick poverty-studies majors or minors are typically required to serve internships at schools, runaway shelters, hospices, food banks, and other social-service centers where they may do some actual good for actual poor people. But even that connection to reality may vanish from poverty studies if it becomes, as some English professors are agitating for, a branch of literary studies. As those who follow trends in English departments well know, many professors have become bored with literature and have shifted their energies in the direction “cultural studies.” where analyses of race, gender, and sexuality have supplanted analysis of how writers craft their works.
So why not add poverty to the cultural-studies mix? Keith Gandal, an English professor at Northern Illinois University, argues exactly that in a recent essay in Inside Higher Education. Gandal urges his departmental colleagues to extend their “raising consciousness and changing attitudes among students” on feminist and gay-rights issues to poverty activism as well. (You might not have realized that it’s a literature professor’s job to raise consciousness and change students’ attitudes, but now you know.) Furthermore, writes Gandal, what with economic hard times forcing universities to trim their payrolls and benefits, many English professors will soon be able to add a soupcon of “socioeconomic suffering” to their teaching that will make poverty studies “less academic, less other.”
Indeed. I have a further cost-cutting suggestion that will make poverty studies even less academic, and and also return college coursework out of the realm of indoctrination of students and into the realm of mastering intellectual material and furthering the life of the mind: get rid of “poverty studies” altogether, and all the rest of those “studies” as well.