Learning to Be Critics


Three years ago, while contemplating applying for graduate school, I asked an LBJ student about the activist climate at the school. His answer – that there weren’t any “bomb-throwing Marxists” – told me all I needed to know: LBJ was not going to be a hotbed for radical organizing.

It turns out he was right. To be clear, I’m fine with the lack of bomb-throwing. And I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity to grow intellectually and personally among a highly intelligent student body and faculty. Still, for all of its strengths, the LBJ School’s chief weakness is its lack of a community of critical inquiry.

My own experience illustrates the meaning and necessity of such an environment. From 2006 to 2010 I worked at a dropout recovery charter high school on Austin’s east side. Our goal was to educate our students the best we could. It was soon painfully apparent, however, that social problems that had for me been mostly abstract concerns to that point – racialized poverty, family instability, food insecurity and the like – did not stop at the classroom door.

This meant that what had begun as a relatively simple task soon required asking complex, far-reaching questions about the underlying nature of society. My school’s immediate goals were to raise standardized test scores and boost graduation rates, but to achieve these goals we needed to understand and somehow combat numerous social ills. In turn, this meant understanding how history, culture, economics, politics, geography and gender shaped the conditions in which our students lived and that gave birth to the obstacles limiting their potentials. It meant critiquing our school and the education system. It meant trying to figure out what caused the situation to get so bad and what made things so hard to change. It meant choosing sides on difficult issues.

The LBJ School’s mission – to prepare students to solve social problems through careers in policy and administration – is different than ours was. But its success depends no less on an atmosphere that encourages ongoing questioning of the fundamental assumptions that undergird disputes in the public sphere. Unfortunately, we miss our share of opportunities to do so.

For example, many LBJ students are preparing to work in international development, yet I hear very little about what’s caused so many development programs to fail again and again.

My economics classes assumed a growing economy is a “good” economy, yet I didn’t hear why these are synonymous, nor was this conflation linked to the destruction of the earth’s biosphere.

The CIA and State Department commonly recruit LBJers, but I don’t recall much discussion of how these agencies have undermined democracy and perpetrated atrocities around the world.

Our management classes train us to effectively run an organization, but without much emphasis on the existence of racial, gender, class-based and decision-making hierarchies.

Students debate President Obama’s and the Republicans’ merits, but I’ve yet to hear anyone question whether our system of privately-financed elections renders our system undemocratic and illegitimate in the first place.

This is not at all to say that questions like these aren’t being asked by anyone nor that LBJ isn’t a community of genuinely concerned, knowledgeable people. On the contrary, one of our greatest strengths is our commonly-held desire to make the world a better place. But doing so means more than having good intentions.

For one, it requires an understanding of the differences in values that underlie disputes throughout the history of public policy. While LBJ emphasizes fluency in quantitative analysis, there is no equivalent focus on qualitative analysis; that is, on the political philosophies and ideologies that shape political action.

Moreover, it means developing a new definition of success. The LBJ School is training us to be full-fledged members of the professional-managerial class, giving us relatively large amounts of privilege and influence, as well as the attendant responsibility. In one sense, we will be successful if we effectively fill the roles of the establishment institutions that most of us will join with the help of an LBJ degree.

However, a broader conception of success also entails questioning the logic and assumptions embedded in the institutions we will sustain. Not only is this necessary to ensure the ethical integrity of our actions – remember the banality of evil – but it is vital to effectively solve the problems we will face in our careers. My work at the high school illustrated this well: Although we temporarily achieved some positive results, as a school we generally did not address the larger social problems our students faced and our successes were ultimately short-lived.

The scale of the problems LBJ graduates will face makes it crucial that we are equipped with the tools and the courage to search out underlying causes and to address them. You could even say it means engaging in some intellectual bomb-throwing of our own—creating a heightened atmosphere of engaged, critical thinking with a strong dose of dissident consciousness.


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