Mitau Lecture fails to impress: how can academics engage students?

Let me preface with this: As students at Macalester, we are wildly lucky to have access to wonderful professors and outside speakers. Many of us can live in a world where our intellectual thoughts, homework and future can consume us for hours, days and weeks on end. This is a privilege and what I am about to say should not take away from that fact.

The Mitau Lecture by Adolph Reed last week failed to engage for two reasons. First, for the vast majority of people I chatted with, the lecture was just boring. The room started full and ended with throngs of people wondering if a regular nap from 4:45 to 6 would be beneficial more often. Reed started with a strong thesis, arguing that the American political left has essentially been obliterated because there is no longer an anti-capitalist force in electoral politics. He proceeded to give us 50 years of American history while barely blinking. For some, this may have been informative and that is great. However, I found Reed’s point of view lacking nuance and originality. His perspective is all over campus. In fact, Reed’s ideology seemed to be the exact same as that of Paul Dosh, the moderator and organizer of the event.

Academia is a fascinating institution. Colleges host speakers, pay them thousands of dollars, feed them and put them up for a night. There are plenty of smart people who can present and be engaging and captivate a college audience. There is a high demand for it too. What makes this process baffling is that colleges give royal treatments to speakers who don’t tailor their talks to college audiences. Reed spoke directly from an academic paper for an hour and a half. He barely lifted his head. For many, the talk was not interesting and furthermore, his sense of humor was tasteless. Along the way, he made jokes about the death of an economist Gary Becker and one about shooting himself in the head because he felt like he was giving a TED Talk.

Reed did not utilize any graphics, data or technology. Instead, he turned to academic jargon to sway the audience. I’m positive that Reed had a point and I am sure it was interesting. I just could not follow it. It felt similar to Paul Farmer at 2014 commencement but worse. Just because someone can write academic papers does not mean they will work on a coherent presentation or engage a college audience.

Professor Paul Dosh’s moderation of the entire event, from the lecture to the Q&A lunch the following day, was also frustrating. Dosh is one of the best professors I have ever had. He works tirelessly, treats his students like gold and genuinely cares about classroom learning. His Latin American Politics class was one of my favorite parts of sophomore year. But Dosh has a clear political view that filters through to his students. His ideology is an important one, and it is quite similar to that of Reed. He wants students to understand the negative effects of neoliberalism and how activism can offset those effects.

Imagine how interesting it could have been if an Economics professor, with a different perspective, moderated the conversation? Two people from different schools of thought could have challenged each other. Instead, we had a host in Dosh who could probably recite Reed line for line. It was just a circle of agreement.

The lunch Q&A the following day brought out the circle of agreement in greater force. Reed, like most of us, is liberal. Reed made it clear that he is left of what is considered traditionally liberal. At times, I am totally on board with this political stance. However, I found that Reed had a “with us or against us” and “go union or die” attitude. It makes for a conversation that focuses on the ills of society. This is a necessary conversation. However, none of Reed or Dosh’s dialogue included the other necessary conversation: How can we solve the societal ills brought forth by neoliberal politics? When asked by a student how are we to fix our country’s political, right-leaning, corporate predicament, Reed responded, “Well that’s the 64 dollar question.” There was more than enough conversation about the problem, but no time devoted to solutions, something I and other students want to be inspired by.

At the lunch, Reed equated President Obama to Clinton and Bush. For Reed, if they all believe in capitalism, then they are the same. He said ObamaCare was a neoliberal regurgitation of RomneyCare in Massachusetts that panders to insurance companies. I found this to be short-sighted, as millions of Americans are signing up for universal health care and the policy is working despite complications. He admitted he had not read the bill because he thought it was too complicated but noted that he did not like ObamaCare. There was no discussion of the barriers that Obama had to go through to pass the Affordable Care Act.

Reed made it clear that he wants to overhaul the current economic system. I feel, rightfully or not, that Reed is part of an at times appealing Tea Party version of liberals. An ideology where we go back in time to when the United States was built on the grit and grind of hard-working Americans with manufacturing jobs who walk together in unions. I would love for that to happen as well, but am not convinced it’s possible on the scale that Reed wants.

I wish that Reed discussed how unions are also imperfect, don’t all serve the same purpose, and could be improved in certain ways for the good of policy and bipartisanship. We live in a country where, in 2014, only 11 percent of Americans are unionized (Bureau of Labor Statistics) and another 17 percent think we have an all-powerful, Muslim socialist king as our President (Huffington Post). The service-based, rising technology job sector is only getting larger. I just do not think a non-existent labor party that Reed represents is feasibly going to save the country. That ship probably sailed away 30 years ago when union membership was at 20 percent in 1983 (BLS). However, this ideology was alive and well at Macalester long before Reed showed up.

Instead of getting speakers like Reed, perhaps next time Macalester could host a speaker who has ideas or experiences far outside the Macalester bubble. Maybe let Dosh moderate or participate in a discussion with someone who believes in free-market capitalism or vice-versa. Maybe, this speaker will have an interactive presentation to support their claims. And maybe, just maybe, we will stay awake.