Teaching Political Theory in the Time of COVID-19

COVID-19 and Cultural Studies

Banner image featuring a spray painted graffiti mask and the series title.

Peter Ives

July 3, 2020

“Philosophy teaches that to be human one must be part of some social aggregate.” —Antonio Gramsci, 1916         

In my 8:30am political philosophy class on March 12, 2020—the class that was to become our last class—I was discussing the liberalism of John Stuart Mill with my students. The University had asked all professors to think through how we would finish the last two weeks of our courses if in-person classes were suspended. At the time, it did not yet feel like a real probability despite the fact that public health hand-washing mantra was already well underway. Because we were talking about Mill’s distinctions between “self-regarding acts”—those actions over which, Mill argues, we should have complete freedom—and “other-regarding acts,” the regulation of which can be warranted, hand washing was my obvious example. I made the point that for Mill this distinction was often a debate with significant grey areas and lack of agreement. Mill, I noted, was not presenting his distinction as a clear solution to all such issues, but rather he was providing a framework in which such questions should be debated. My example was that a month ago, washing your hands would probably be considered by most of us a “self-regarding act”—it was your choice and not doing it would harm only you, unless you work at a restaurant, for example—but now it is a moral responsibility for all of us precisely due to how it can affect others. Because of the pandemic, not washing your hands is seen as an other-regarding act that could spread a pandemic virus.

Within a few hours, the COVID-19 situation had developed quickly. In my 11:30 class on populism, ironically enough, we were discussing “crowd-theory” in relation to the “the people.” We sort of joked that discussing “crowds” was already beginning to feel anachronistic. By the end of class, I had a deeper melancholic sense that we would not be getting together again as a class. While a few students participated more than usual once we had switched to Zoom for review sessions, my general feeling was that we all missed out on the learning we would have had if not for the pandemic. 

But finishing off courses due to COVID is quite different from teaching them fully on-line from the beginning as many professors and students are now doing with spring courses and almost all of us will be doing come September. There are a host of complex issues to think through from synchronous versus asynchronous formats, to rethinking the idea (and length of) lectures, tests, accessibility issues, and, of course, engaging students. All these issues will differ depending on the subject matter. However, the underlying theme that has always guided my pedagogy is that political theory is about what it is to be human—how we live together, what is the role of government in enabling us to live together. COVID has challenged our preconceived ideas about these issues. I am actually wondering if the pandemic will help me do some of my pedagogical work by de-naturalizing the dominant conception of the individual—the notion that society is a collection of individuals. Its most extreme version that had been central to neo-liberalism is captured in Margaret Thatcher’s famous statement, “[T]here’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.”1 Of course, this position was always controversial but the dominance of liberal individualism rooted in ideas like those of John Stuart Mill, as I was just discussing, together with neoliberal globalization, has seriously challenged government activity especially through fiscal restraint and often times extreme austerity for the last forty years.

In some senses, the pandemic seems to have fundamentally altered the terrain of many of these issues—from the visceral daily reaction we have to others not respecting physical distancing to large swathes of society being very thankful for massive government spending in the form of CERB (Canadian Emergency Relief Benefit) and other programmes with little fear mongering about deficits and debts. At this point it is mere speculation, but I suspect the considerably positive general public response to the massive protests against racist police violence in the wake of George Floyd’s murder—violence that has been being caught on video at least since the Rodney King incident in 1991—may be partially related to changing sensibilities related to COVID. Ironically, physical isolation for a collective cause may have enabled many to experience the logic of public health that transcends any individualistic lens. It is no accident that the concept of systemic racism has come to the fore as a key factor that mainstream public figures have finally accepted. Only a minority of staunchly conservative politicians insist that systemic racism does not exist in the US and Canada. Public discussions and sentiments around racism have changed significantly since May 25 due to the struggles of activists and organizers of Black Lives Matter and related groups, but also due to our collective experiences of the pandemic issue, unequal as they have been.  

I am sure that in the fall my students will want to discuss all these issues, as will I. Just as in other years, I will try to show them how the classic texts of political theory from Aristotle and Al-Fārābi through Hobbes, Wollstonecraft, Marx, and Arendt provide a crucial terrain on which to discuss such pressing contemporary issues. I have never presented political texts as the source of “great ideas” or as solutions or adequate tools. Quite the opposite. So-called “great texts” are hardly “great,” in my view, but rather the sources of many of the terrible ideas that dominate and structure the unjust worlds we live in including racism, on-going colonialism, massive and increasing inequality, and environmental degradation. Far from providing the answers, political theory, in my view, reveals the problems with how we have been thinking about things, hopefully pointing to new ways of being human. These are, of course, much bigger problems than the potential Zoom functions, on-line assignment grading, and other details that seem to preoccupy most of us this summer. I am trying to have faith that these latter pedagogical and technical issues will not overshadow the more important problems that face us.

1 Margaret Thatcher, “Aids, Education and the Year 2000,” interview with Douglas Keay, Women’s Own, October 31, 1987, p.9.

Peter Ives teaches Political Theory in the Department of Political Science and is currently Chair of the Philosophy Department at the University of Winnipeg. He is author of several books including Gramsci’s Politics of Language: Engaging the Bakhtin Circle and the Frankfurt School and works on the politics of global English. More information can be found on his research in WinnSpace.

The banner image was designed by Lauren Bosc, adapted from an image by Adam Nieścioruk on Unsplash.

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