In this occasional series, we ask Arts and Sciences instructors to discuss how they engage students in the great questions of our time.
Wealth, Power, and Inequality
Q. How would you describe this course?
A. Firstly, we cover a theoretical look at inequality over time, and the other half looks at inequality in contemporary America. This structure allows this class to be approachable to any student that takes it. Everyone who walks into the classroom is on a different social hierarchy level, which examines that directly. It makes students think about ideas they would not have before.
This course is also very theoretical. We look at various ideas of how society has changed over time. For example, there is Karl Marx, a critic of capitalism, and Ayn Rand, who is a defender of capitalism. This course examines both writers and tries to discover what created the divide in their schools of thought. However, understanding that societal divide requires an understanding of inequality throughout history.
Q. What makes this course appealing to students?
A. This course breaks down the structure of inequality so it is more easily digestible. The first part of the class provides a foundational understanding of the nature of inequality, and when you apply those ideas to a modern American context, it becomes fascinating. Students may find the second half of the class more enjoyable because it focuses on the nuts and bolts of contemporary problems. However, I think it’s vital for them to have a theoretical foundation to understand that.
Q. Why is this course important?
A. America is a tremendously unequal society, and I often perceive that as getting worse. I feel everyone must have a structural understanding of inequality. This class challenges the idea that we have a meritocracy, in which people become successful (or not) based on merit. This course talks about the playing field on which that idea of societal competition takes place. It gets students to think on a structural rather than an individualistic level.
What factors give an advantage to one person and not another? When students understand that the system is not a true meritocracy, but society teaches us to believe it is, it causes them to rethink their positions on political issues. I think it could do good for everyone to expand on these ideas.
Q. How can students take this course into the workforce?
A. The skills developed in this class can help any student in the workforce. Developing that sense of critical thinking is deeply important to me. I think the role of higher education is to create better citizens in general.
Q. What’s the most exciting or unusual assignment you give students in this class?
A. I don’t think it’s just one assignment that stands out for me. I think the value of this class is bringing people together from diverse backgrounds to exchange ideas on under-discussed topics.
It’s worthwhile when students have dialogues on these topics and honest conversations about these things. The subject is inequality is complex, and I do not want to trivialize it. I don’t see myself as giving enjoyable assignments, but students walk away with a greater perspective. They walk away enjoying the class and become deeply passionate about this subject. That, to me, is what I care about most.
– Interview by Emma Barrett (B.A., English, ’25). Photo by Raven Schley.