How can I combine my interests into a coherent academic plan?
October 16, 2008 6:05 PM   Subscribe

Seeking a field that blends radical left-wing politics and sustainability with technology without diluting any of them.

I'm graduating in two months with a degree in political science and since I know I don't just want to go to Washington and work, I'm planning on going back to school in a year or so for my master's or pHd. The problem is, I don't know what to study!

I'm interested in: Communist (okay, most non-capitalist) political thought, Nietzsche, sustainable planning and agriculture, the 'back to the land' movement as started by Helen and Scott Nearing, gadgets and toys, how technology can improve people's lives and various other things.

I'm not interested in: working for the American government or directly contributing to what I feel is a broken system, working for the sake of making money in the capitalist machine (My boyfriend and I currently live in Brooklyn and we're leaving in the near future to escape exactly this morass), creating or helping to create tech for the sake of tech.

So, that there a field out there for me? I've been thinking of going an individualized M.A. at somewhere like Goddard, but I can't even begin to put a research topic into a coherent statement. Help!
posted by youcancallmeal to Education (14 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Our inevitable future will be powered by renewable energy. It's a better way to be to start with, but it absolutely must happen because fossil fuels are finite and because the damage to the planet is unsustainable. You want right wing, look to fossil fuels. You want the opposite, look to renewable. The renewable future is not coming fast enough, though, to sustain our energy needs. As great as it would be for everyone to get back to the land, that's not going to happen any time soon, and in the meantime all of those people are high energy consumers. Help them harness the free stuff blowing, flowing, and shining all around us.

Another idea is alternative transportation methods. There was a question here just recently about alternate modes of transport. The world needs it, whether it wants it or not. Help make it viable. Help create something that eliminates the current barriers to mass use of public transport.

Work to make society the way you want, but recognize that change happens slowly, and that your part will likely be helping to push some of that slow movement. That means working within the system, the capitalist machine. You don't have to like the system, but don't try to deny that it is reality. Claim it, so that you can change it. Get into one or more of the innovative industries that can change it and help remake how society works.

Go, sister!
posted by Askr at 6:31 PM on October 16, 2008

technology enabled open education.

schools are an unsustainable model, and we desperately need to get outside the paradigm. (cost of gas alone is driving schools to consider 4 day weeks, at a time when the schools themselves are failing miserably.) technology on a open model is what can bring us back to our neighborhoods, bring families back home, and stop us from spending all our time driving to get to jobs or schools. if we succeed (and we don't really have a choice), we will finally have our communities back. places where people actually spend their time, instead of on the road.

it's nearly anarchistic in its sensibilities--free education and learning from the idea that it should be held exclusively in buildings or teachers' minds, and make the choice a true one: allow kids and adults the ability to choose to work from home or from neighborhood open education centers. focus on creating learning environments that foster the love of learning, rather than the ability to control children and make them sit still all day.

help us get out of this mess. figuring out how to get there is going to require all the highly educated and motivated people we can get.

it will require politicians, policy wonks, educators, curricula designers, arts folks, community builders, philosophers and especially technology oriented people to make it happen. pick an angle. we need you. but don't think it's about "us"--because it's going to take a whole lot of people and a whole lotta nodes to make it happen.
posted by RedEmma at 6:43 PM on October 16, 2008 [5 favorites]

The modern world is a very interconnected place. If you have a problem with "The System", I'm not so sure it will be easy to find palatable shades of grey in supporting it.

For example, when I was in high school I did an engineering internship for a company that designed and built Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. They got their start, as I understand it, doing contracts for NASA - things like high altitude atmospheric research and exploring concepts like flight in the atmosphere of other planets. Cool, eh?

Well, these days the big market for UAVs is military and police work. The basic objective (military idioms!) was to have a Halo-reared enlistee in Phoenix click a button and launch a "smart"-missile at a guy in the tribal area of Terrorstan.

I was, and am, conflicted. The work I was doing helped out (well, I was an intern, they probably scrapped it all anyway) projects that were essentially Flying Death Robots as much as it did cool human-knowledge expanding projects. This was a small company, I think the issues get a lot worse in a larger company.

Take, for example, a reporter for NBC. Lets say she does a really good job reporting on the Bush administration's abuses of exectuve power in some arena. People tune in, ratings soar, public pressure mounts, something is done. Way to fight the system, that a girl! But NBC is owned by General Electric, which also has such charming sidelines as nuclear bomb maintenance and munitions manufacture. Not to mention the ads that made this big conglomerate so much money might give children negative self image or encourage obesity. You just can't win...

Now my tuition dollars go to big land grant school which gets a lot of research money from The Man. DARPA and the NSA for one, but also some tobacco companies.

I think you would be hard pressed to find a prestigious school or company that isn't somehow tied to an industry you dislike. Espescially if you fancy yourself a communist.

So I see a few routes you can take here...

You can abjectly refuse to participate in anything that encourages the baser tendencies of man. I think if you're honest and inquisitive, this will mean essentially dropping of society, growing your own food, and witholding taxes. This fellow may be inspirational. Or maybe these folks.

Not doing harm may be insufficient for you. You could be a revolutionary, ala the weathermen. It worked out really well for them, eh?

The third path is the least glamorous. It seems like, and to some extent may be, a cop out. You buy in to society, and just try to do what you can from your little corner. You don't do anything really evil. You vote. You tutor kids after school. Take the normal job, but try to use what influence you have to steer things away from the truly objectionable.

Capitalism may blow, but it looks like it's got some staying power - how can we make the best of that? I don't think there is much you can learn at a university that you couldn't learn on your own if motivated - but it's a good way to prove to people that you can jump through certain hoops. I'm not really sure a phd makes sense for you unless you want to stay in academia.

On Preview: I'm in electrical engineering, and I think renewable energy is a good thing for me to think about, but I'm not sure what a polisci major would be able to contribute. I'm from a DC suburb and know a few people who are, in my view anyway, (morally) good lobbyists. I think that's probably the most useful thing for someone in your position to do - work on policy, bother representatives, get the right people elected so the right things get funded.
posted by phrontist at 6:50 PM on October 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

You might enjoy a program in human geography. Here's a description from UC Berkeley.
posted by nat at 7:05 PM on October 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

I second looking into transportation: I did an internship with my city's provider, working with community groups and helping them define their needs. It was absolutely fascinating. You get to work with a wide range of professionals, you can be involved in the community, it's a field that will (have to) grow a lot in the next few years.
posted by OLechat at 7:17 PM on October 16, 2008

This could fit into different fields:

Read about Joel Salatin's modern sustainable agriculture (featured in part in, The Omnivore's Dilemma), and see if that appeals to you.

Figure out a blueprint for shifting the world's agriculture away from the industrial, to the sustainable. (E.g., find out how "the system" unfairly favors industrial agriculture; then figure out how to move in a different direction.)

Probably already been done, but hey, the more the merrier. Or you can focus on some aspect of it, and cover it really well. Or start your own farm as your thesis project.

Help find the way to a better future.
posted by coffeefilter at 7:25 PM on October 16, 2008

Ask RMI about internships.
posted by flabdablet at 7:27 PM on October 16, 2008

If you like sustainable low-cost architecture how about the Rural Studio Outreach Program? Other schools may have similar programs in community oriented architecture and sustainability.

And maybe I'm being old fashioned, but programs in Sociology, Social Work, Education and Public Health are often geared towards progressive social change. If you find one you like you will most likely run into at least a few like minded folks.
posted by abirae at 8:10 PM on October 16, 2008

Why not try grad studies in Canada? Lots of schools have decent funding, and the political landscape is certainly more "socialist" than in the U.S. Some programs could include: Social and Political Thought (York U, Toronto); Communication and Culture (York U); Theory, Culture, Politics (Trent U). There are other "cultural studies," and "communication studies," and sociology departments that might be interesting (as well as interdisciplinary options). Notable professors with leanings similar to yours include: Henry Giroux (McMaster); Arthur Kroker (U Victoria); and Brian Massumi (U Montreal). Good luck.
posted by rumbles at 8:35 PM on October 16, 2008

You might want to look into permaculture.
posted by nanojath at 9:02 PM on October 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

Come to Berkeley.

Ditto the geography program at Berkeley, great place full of, ahem, non-capitalist thought. You could do a double-major with something like environmental engineering or the Energy & Resources Group.

Distributed generation has always struck me as very anarcho-collectivist. Bookchin, Small is Beautiful, etc. Work on local solar stuff.
posted by salvia at 10:06 PM on October 16, 2008

I would certainly echo the comments about Joel Salatin. He is totally my hero. Of all the books he has written, the most political-- and least like a how-to manual for farming-- is definitely Everything I Want To Do Is Illegal. For a more direct view of how his model works, try You Can Farm.

And, as has already been mentioned, Hunter and Amory Lovins at the Rocky Mountain Institute have been doing something very close to your plan for more than thirty years. Although since they believe in working with the system, not trying to destroy it, your mileage with them may vary.

Oh-- also Permaculture and Habitat for Humanity and all that stuff. They all do good work. In particular, Permaculture can give you a good way of looking at problems and solutions.

Which reminds me-- regarding your graduate school question, Antioch University here in Seattle still offers a graduate program in Whole Systems Design that I think looks absolutely fantastic, and probably meets many of your requirement.s (I know it meets mine! I wish I could enroll today. Probably have to save it for after I retire from my current job. Ah, to be young again...)

But honestly, after reading your description of technology and sustainability together on the land, the people that I think come closest to your mindset are probably the good folks at Open Farm Tech. If you want back-to-the-land coupled with an ultra high-tech open-source search for solutions, those guys seem to have a good plan, and are actually building their dream, step by step. I would give them a look. Their cause is work supporting.

Finally, a few personal words of opinion and advice:

Don't be afraid to work with other people or organizations. You'll probably never find a person or group that totally matches your ideals. (You should probably be afraid if you do.) Don't let that stop you from contributing to the good work they do. Irish Rock star Bono (U2) works closely with right-wing fundamentalist churches in the United States to help feed hungry children in Africa. Neither partner lets their distaste with the other party's politics interfere with their mutual goal of-- feeding hungry children in Africa. Or, as Joel Salatin says: "Something about my personal brand of politics and idealism is sure to piss off just about everyone at one time or another." So don't get yourself locked into a narrow world-view espoused by just one political party or group-- whether it is in Berkeley or anywhere else. Let's try a mind experiment: Do you now automatically discount everything I've said if I reveal to you that I have just returned from my third combat tour in the Middle East?

Last of all, don't get discouraged, and never give up your dreams. He's written some things I don't agree with, but I totally totally groove on Alex Steffen's statement that Cynicism is Obedience. It's a handy mantra I keep telling to myself, and has surprising power to convince me to act.

I wish you the best in your search, and wouldn't mind hearing back on how things are going from you. Drop me a message sometime on MeFi.

Good luck, fellow traveller!

posted by seasparrow at 9:45 AM on October 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

A lot of interesting left social-science work these days is being done in planning (the field formerly known as "urban" planning) and geography. This isn't my field, but I think Berkeley and Cornell are the key places for planning, and I'd take a look at geography at CUNY Graduate Center, the current home of the brilliant Marxist geographer David Harvey. Another interesting angle for someone with a quantitative bent would be heterodox/dissenting economics: the department at UMass is one hotbed of independent and critical thought in a discipline whose mainstream practitioners you wouldn't want to study with, and take a look at URPE for other people you might be interested in working with. I'd stay away from those individualized programs – since you don't already have a strong idea of what topic you want to work on, it might be more useful to learn a discipline and specialize in a subfield, as a first step toward figuring out what you want to do after the degree, and as this will make the degree a more useful credential.
posted by RogerB at 10:53 AM on October 17, 2008

A friend of mine works at the Open Planning Project. Not sure if it's radical, persay, but I think it has the potential to be. I would check out applications of open source software in general, I think.
posted by lunit at 12:11 PM on October 17, 2008

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