Teaching about Sweatshops and the Global Economy

By Miller, John | Radical Teacher, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

Teaching about Sweatshops and the Global Economy


Miller, John, Radical Teacher


"How often do you see stu dents protesting the exploitation of labor," a friend and fellow political economist, asked me late one evening. "They deserve our support," he insisted.

Of course they do. That is why last Fall I taught "Sweatshops and the Global Economy," a first year seminar at Wheaton College, a small New England liberal arts college, where I have worked for over two decades.

But teaching a first year seminar about sweatshops was not always the act of solidarity I had imagined. In class, I found myself confronting many of the same arguments I had encountered writing a reply to the defenders of globalization and critics of the anti-sweatshop movement (Collins and Miller, 2000).

That is hardly surprising. After all, every entering student at Wheaton is required to take a first year seminar. Engaging those students, nor the group of sweatshop activists I had somehow convinced myself would be raking my course, was something I struggled with all semester.

Those struggles are much of what I report on in my article. I developed techniques (exercises, arguments, and discussion strategies), and found materials (videos, pamphlets, personal testimonies) that worked--engaged the students in a critical analysis of sweatshops, of the effects of globalization, and of the role of women in the world export factories. But many times my efforts fell short. I try to report honestly what I learned from those efforts as well.

INSIDE SWEATSHOPS AND THE GLOBAL ECONOMY

"Sweatshops and the Global Economy" was one of eighteen sections of Wheaton's seminar program for first year students. The sixteen students who selected my seminar were much like those in my other classes, although a bit more open to thinking about their place in the world economy. One of them was a sweatshop activist and several others were concerned about sweatshops and curious about what they might do to combat their spread. Other students were there because they were interested in economic issues, and some merely because they had to take a first year seminar.

More of my students were women than men, about two-thirds, which is typical of Wheaton, a former women's college. All but one of the students were white, and most came from seemingly privileged backgrounds. A few had attended prep school. But one student was from inner-city New York, two were the children of school teachers, and another came from backwoods Maine.

My students' academic skills varied widely: from students who read critically and wrote skillfully, to those who read with difficulty and had problems writing. I suspect that their mix of skills was typical of a second tier liberal arts college, Wheaton's rank in the U.S. News and World Report's ratings.

The political sophistication of the students varied greatly as well. One had never heard right and left used as political terms. A few possessed a critical sense of the inequalities of today's economy. But others, though readily allowing that third world economies were riddled with inequalities, took umbrage at any suggestion that the rewards of U.S. society were distributed unfairly.

Perhaps the one trait most of my students shared was that they were quieter than my other students. That is not unusual for a group of first year students. With a few exceptions, the bulk of my students were struggling to find their voice. This was true of the men as well as the women and of some of my very best students.

The content of my sweatshop seminar is much like that of the few other sweatshop courses that I know about, all of which are taught by sociologists. Like those courses, it covers the return of sweatshops to the United States, the proliferation of sweatshops in Latin America and Asia, the globalization of the clothing, athletic footwear, or toy industries, and union, consumer, and student efforts to combat sweatshops. (1)

In one important way, the content of my course differs from that of other sweatshop courses. …

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