How Scholars Play With The Poor

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How Scholars Play With The Poor

by Howard Brick

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 10, No. 4, July/August 1978, p. 18–22

The popular view, maintained even today, is that the university is a haven for the unproductive—a dream world. But, in fact, the university plays quite an active role in our national life. To put it bluntly, the intellectual work that goes on at the university level is for the most part the work that is required to justify the perpetuation of the existing social order—to protect the status quo. The university is in fact not an ivory tower. It is integrally related to the rest of the social system. Academics, whether they know it or not, do a job and perform a service for the benefit of the dominant classes in our society.

This has been clear enough in the past. In the years following World War II, as the United States approached a period of political reaction, literary scholars throughout the country advanced the theories of New Criticism, which claimed that only the text of a literary work, not an author’s social or historical context, mattered in scholarship. Sociologists advanced the idea that our society had reached the “end of ideology.” Historians spoke in the same terms; Daniel Boorstin, for one, in his book The Genius of American Politics, argued that ideology, meaning, in his terms, a systematic program of political principles and social objectives, was never part of American politics and was in fact unAmerican—a convenient intellectual justification for the McCarthyite witch-hunt of the “enemy within.” 

The fifties and sixties saw an increase in classified military research on American campuses and in government-supported studies in social science departments. It certainly reached an extreme when the Political Science Department of Michigan State University helped write the constitution for the government of South Vietnam.

By now, the University of Michigan, for example, has severed official ties with classified research, but such a step should not lead us to think that the political, economic and social nature of higher education has significantly changed.

It has simply been obscured.

For the trend of the last few years- ever since the American people rid the country of Nixon and Congress began congratulating itself for the efficiency of the “democratic process”—has been to mask the social realities of our world with humanitarian talk of change. The political exploitation of a “progressive” rhetoric of harmony and human rights has helped elect and support the new administration in Washington, but the society, as a matter of course, retains all the destructive tendencies of advanced capitalism and imperialism.

With this in mind, we can understand the workings of an organization like the Community Systems Foundation (CSF) of Ann Arbor, formed fifteen years ago by a group of University of Michigan faculty and graduate students—drawn from Education, Engineering, Natural Resources, Geography and Public Health. With the avowed aim of “improving humankind through scientific research and direct assistance to communities in helping them to improve themselves,” CSF has done nutritional research in various parts of the Third World, including Thailand, Colombia, and Chile, with funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Since 1976, the organization has worked in the Cauda Valley of Colombia, developing programs supposed to end the widespread malnutrition in the region. 

But a careful analysis of CSF’s work there belies its intentions. While CSF sports the lingo of community self-help and progressive education, the organisation only helps to perpetuate the real social basis of hunger and starvation. This is pointed out in an article by University of Michigan Anthropology Professor Michael Taussig in the January 1978 issue of the International Journal of Health Services.

 In the Villa Rica area in the south of the Cauca Valley, it is estimated that 50 per cent of the children under six years of age suffer from malnutrition. Fifty per cent of the population in the area suffers from hookworm infestation. The causes of nutritional and health problems are explained clearly in Taussig’s article: past decades have seen the conversion of the region from small-scale peasant agriculture, cultivating subsistence food crops, to plantations of non-staple crops.

 After the completion of the Panama Canal and a Colombian rail line to the Pacific in 1914, the region was opened to world trade, and land values in the valley soared. Peasants were driven from their land by direct force, flooding of plots, and aerial spraying of herbicides, in order to make way for large sugar-cane plantations, which were substantially financed by U.S. investments. Since the 1950’s, the U.S. corporation Ralston Purina has turned other large sections of the Cauca Valley into sorghum fields. Sorghum is used as animal feed: most of the area’s people cannot afford meat, and the use of prime land for this crop means that cultivation of desperately needed common staples is restricted.1 In the Villa Rica area, Taussig points out,

 Government censuses show that, while some 80 per cent of the cultivated land is owned by four sugar plantations and a few large farms, 90 per cent of the holdings are less than ten hectares and land is becoming increasingly concentrated into fewer owners. The majority of holdings are so small that their peasant owners are forced to work on the large estates. My own census in 1971 indicated that 30 per cent of households in the Villa Rica jurisdiction are landless, while another 50 per cent have less than the two hectares necessary for subsistence. 

Even the land that remains in peasant hands has been converted, through the efforts of a USAID supported government program, from the traditional crop mix of cocoa, coffee, plantains and fruit trees to mechanized single-crop cultivation of soya, beans or corn. This conversion has actually tended to increase peasant indebtedness, and the transfer of land to large owners is only continued. “In the Agua Azul neighborhood of the Villa Rica area,” Taussig writes, “a third of the land that was in peasant control in 1972 had passed to the sugar plantations by 1976.” 

The crux of the problem, then, lies with the monopolization of land by a few rich families and foreign agribusiness corporations, the conversion of agriculture from cultivation of food crops to that of export crops and animal feeds, and the transformation of the population from small subsistence farmers to superexploited day laborers, who live as the prey of corrupt labor contractors and a degrading piece-work pay system. The people in the area, Taussig says, refer to sugar cane as a plant “which dries one up” and claim that the detested work in the cane fields makes one thin and prematurely old. Financially strapped families find it increasingly hard to feed themselves, and most of the limited nutritious food inevitably goes to the adult laborer at the expense of the small children, whose physical and mental development is thus stunted (see The Malnourished Mind, by Elie A. Shmerour, Doubleday Anchor Books, Garden City, NY, 1975).

But CSF’s program of change completely ignores the social relationships, the inequality and fierce oppression which lie at the heart of this problem. Instead, it has advanced the incredible idea that the solution lies in changing poor people’s attitudes toward nutrition. Convince the community of remaining small peasant farmers to withhold a portion of their soya from the market and encourage each household to consume two-thirds of a pound of soya a day, CSF says, and the problem of malnutrition will be solved. 

Of course, CSF must face the fact that the people of Colombia consider soya to be animal food. The answer, the research group says, is to set up a system of behavioral incentives to change eating habits. One of the principal devices CSF proposes is an educational program based on John Dewey’s concepts of “learning through doing.” Bringing peasant children into schools where they will participate in gathering nutritional information through experiments with laboratory rats will create an elite of “agents of change.” The children will go back to their communities, tell people that soya is more nutritious than plantain and yucca, and begin measuring and weighing their brothers and sisters to test their physical development.

One CSF writer, who now teaches in Michigan’s Department of Journalism, explains CSF strategy: 

Its roots lie inextricably embedded in Darwinism. CSF is trying to compress a behavioral version of adaptive selection into a very short time frame. It seeks to produce life-enhancing habit patterns harnessing the scientific method to functional adaptation. Only local stimuli are used to speed the process, for they alone can produce modifications tailored to immediate conditions. In essence, CSF methodology is a behavioral analogue of the evolutionary process of natural selection. Through artificially-induced bombardments of local stimuli, community habit patterns are shifted to produce permanent, functional adaptation to local conditions. 

This sort of social science jargon is appalling, when it is perfectly clear that the problem lies in the nature of “local conditions” themselves. To encourage adaptation to local conditions is to avoid solving the problem, to reconcile the sufferers of oppression to their oppressors. It pictures the “local conditions” as somehow parallel to the natural environment to which species adapt through selection of mutations. But there is no such parallel. The local conditions are social ones established by people and changeable by people. They are not fixed or permanent, but the Darwinian analogy pictures them as such. The analogy is pernicious. 

Furthermore, the notion CSF advances that the “community” of poor peasants can solve the problem of malnutrition solely through “self-help” is absurd. The “community” cannot be abstracted from the society as a whole and the system of social relationships that link its members to those who hold power outside the community. The absurdity is all the more obvious if we look at a situation closer to home.

In U.S. inner-city ghetto neighborhoods where housing is decrepit, basic education faltering, and unemployment rates astronomical (calculated by some to be 65 per cent among teenagers in places like Bushwick, New York), how long could “self-help” measures be pursued before community members confronted the problems of absentee landlords, restrictive bank loan policies, a militarized federal government budget, and the conflicts between profit-seeking management and labor? Activists like Malcolm X once played with ideas of community uplift. but by the end of his life Malcolm X saw his people’s problems as broad, societal ones, and the word “revolution” was more frequently on his lips.

Of course, the notion that things will get better if only the poor change their attitudes has ever been the favorite of liberal reformers. The underlying assumption is that the problems of the poor are their own fault, and their fault is mainly that they are stupid. 

In one glowing CSF report, the educational projects of the group are described. The children are encouraged to run experiments with rats. The experiments are their own: they think up different menus and see which ones nourish the rats best. The students weigh and measure the animals to chart their progress, and find that soya is the most successful diet for physical development. “Instead of words we have our rats,” a 17-year old peasant girl, Aida, says. “Thanks to our experiment, we realize what makes good nourishment. We will start to weigh our younger brothers and sisters at home and to see what they eat, just like we did with our rats at school.” The writer of the report gloats over the success the school has had in teaching the children the basics of scientific method and the benefits of inductive inquiry. “After eleven weeks,” the writer says, “the nutritional relationship between rats and mankind had been firmly established.” The notion that malnutrition can be “solved” by merely reallocating nutrients placates the children by posing the problem not as one of land scarcity and imperialism, but as a problem of peasant ignorance, not knowing what’s good for them. In effect, telling them to make the best of a bad situation.

 What can be said of this organization and its methods, this grotesque mixture of community selfhelp, Darwinism, Dewey’s theories, behaviorist psychology, and laboratory animal testing techniques? We should recognize it perhaps as an elaborate way of avoiding the real problem and of actually continuing a dehumanizing set of social circumstances. Perhaps the researchers themselves do not understand this; they insist they are helping the poor. 

But after all, what more could we expect out of an organization like CSF? It is funded by USAID—an agency that openly avows its purposes of encouraging private enterprise and insuring an openness to U.S. investments, and which is and sees itself as an arm of U.S. foreign policy. CSF works with Colombian scientists who are funded by the Rockefeller Foundation and operate with the approval of the Colombian government whose interests lie in quieting rural discontent without altering the power structure. Could CSF come up with anything else?

Emmy Lou Packard/LNS

Howard Brick is a graduate student at the University of Michigan in American Cultures and a member of the Ann Arbor Committee for Human Rights in Latin America. The Commitee was formed in August 1976 and consists of students. faculty and members of the Ann Arbor community interested in aiding political prisoners in Latin America and publicizing the facts of political repression in Latin America and U.S. support for these repressive regimes. Their address is: Suite 1. Michigan League. Ann Arbor. Michigan. 48109. 

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  1. Similar patterns of development are found all over the Third World. See Food First (Lappe and Collins, 1977, Houghton Mifflin), especially chapters II and 27 .-E.C.