Wednesday, December 01, 2010
Defining Communism in Class
“What is communism?” I asked the class after writing the word on the board. “I’d like to find an unbiased definition.
One girl was looking in the glossary of her textbook for a definition. “I have one,” she said.
“Okay,” I said, nodding to her.
“‘Communism: economic system in which all property is owned by the community,’” she recited.
I thanked her, then asked the class: “Does that definition make communism sound good, bad, or neutral?”
“It makes communism sound good,” said a boy, “as if everything was equal.”
“Makes communism sound good,” I repeated. “‘An economic system in which all property is owned by the community.’ Who agrees that the textbook’s definition is biased by making communism sound good?”
About three quarters raised their hands.
“How about we try to come up with a definition with as little bias as possible?”
“Just use a dictionary,” said another girl. “They’re not biased.”
“Oh no?” I said. “Let’s check them out. Take out your laptops. Go to Dictionary.com or whatever site you like to use.”
They pulled computers out of cases, opened their lids, and soon there were hands in the air. “‘a theory or system of social organization based on the holding of all property in common, actual ownership being ascribed to the community as a whole or to the state,’” said a boy.
“Okay,” I said. “Does that definition have any bias for or against communism?”
“Doesn’t sound like it to me,” said a girl. “That sounds neutral.”
“Who agrees?” I asked the whole class.
About half raised their hands.
“What about the rest of you?” I asked. My sense was they were tentative and not confident enough to offer an opinion one way or another, so I moved on. Another girl said, “a system of social organization in which all economic and social activity is controlled by a totalitarian state dominated by a single and self-perpetuating political party.”
“Well?” I said expectantly. “Any bias?” I wondered if she knew what “totalitarian” and “self-perpetuating” meant.
“I’m not sure, but it doesn’t sound good,” she said.
“Totalitarian government is one that has total control over people’s lives,” I said. “A self-perpetuating political party is one that does whatever is necessary to stay in power, in control.”
I waited a few seconds in case there were questions. “What do you think now? Does that definition sound biased?”
“Yup,” she said. “It doesn’t make communism sound good at all - kind of like it was shown in ‘Dr. Zhivago.” We had watched that movie in class for its depiction of World War I, the Bolshevik Revolution, and communism’s effects on the central character’s family.
“So, communism is: ‘a system of social organization in which all economic and social activity is controlled by a totalitarian state dominated by a single and self-perpetuating political party,’” I repeated. “Do you all agree that definition makes communism sound bad?”
“Definitely,” said a boy.
“Yes,” said the girl who first read the definition and wasn’t sure.
“Are any of you surprised that dictionaries can be biased when defining certain words?”
Several students nodded. “I just never thought of dictionaries that way,” said a girl.
“Well,” I said. “Communism is controversial. People to the right of center on the political spectrum tend to be hostile toward communism and socialism, but people on the left tend to think they could be good systems if applied well.” We had studied a political spectrum earlier in the year. “The people who wrote your book are like that, for example. They’re left of center.”
“Most words aren’t controversial, however. They may have different shades of meaning, but there’s little disagreement or bias when defining them.”
“So, do you think we could come up with an unbiased definition?” I asked the whole class.
Lots of blank stares and wide eyes, but no one volunteered to craft a definition.
“Awe, come on,” I said. “Nobody?”
Some scrunched their shoulders, but no one volunteered.
“Okay, how about this one,” I wrote on the board as I recited: “‘Communism - an economic system in which there is no private property and government decides who makes what and who gets what.’”
Then I turned around and asked, “What do you think? Any bias?”
“I think it’s biased against communism,” said a boy.
“Why is that?” I asked.
“It makes it seem like government is all-powerful.”
“Uh-huh,” I said. “Anybody else?”
“I don’t think it’s biased. That’s the way communism is,” said another boy. “Government, or ‘the party’ decides everything.”
“Okay,” I said. “Who thinks my definition is biased against communism?”
Only three hands went up.
“Who thinks it isn’t?”
Three more hands. The rest refrained from expressing an opinion.
“Well,” I said. “I am biased against communism, but I was trying to be neutral. We’re almost out of time, so we’ll let that definition stand for now.”