Debating socialism

Spring 2023 course to empower undergrads with skills of civic discourse, fundamentals of debate and relationship between capitalism and socialism

November 14, 2022

Having a firm grasp on the practice of civil discourse is of the utmost importance when discussing difficult topics. Thankfully, Arizona State University undergraduates will have a chance to learn from experts throughout history to better understand — and debate — the pros and cons of socialism in an upcoming seminar-style course that will examine and discuss socialism from economic, moral and philosophical perspectives.

In CEL 394 Class #34798 — held during Session C from noon to 1:15 p.m., Tuesdays and Thursdays, on the Tempe campus — students will discuss the nature of capitalism and the viability of socialism. Taught by Andrew Humphries, a postdoctoral research scholar at the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership, the discussions will help students from all areas of study to explore the concepts of value, economic calculation and the socialist calculation debate in relation to the viability of central planning in a modern economy.  Illustration of a closed fist.

Guided by key texts and engagement with their classmates, they will examine the problems faced by a socialist commonwealth in assigning value to resources and whether socialism is a viable alternative to capitalism in the 21st century. From a historical perspective, they will also analyze the relationship between totalitarianism, democracy, capitalism and socialism.

ASU News spoke with Humphries about why students should consider taking this course.

Question: How will this course help students become better equipped to think deeply about and discuss socialism vs. capitalism?

Answer: At the moment, people have very strong opinions about which is better: socialism or capitalism. It’s a really hot topic again, but most people haven’t really thought through the issues; if they have, they haven’t considered what the best arguments are on the other side. It’s also often difficult to find an arena in which you can learn about and discuss these ideas with others who are going to keep a cool head while exploring the issues rationally and in a spirit of mutual respect and inquiry. So in this class, we’ll read some of the best representatives of people debating socialism from the pro-socialism and from the anti-socialism side, and try to understand and evaluate their arguments together.

Q: Which texts will students read throughout this course?

A: We’ll start reading selections from Adam Smith, Karl Marx, and Menger and Bohm Bawerk about the nature of economic value. Marx argues that economic value comes from workers — what is called the labor theory of value — while Menger and Bohm Bawerk argue that the labor theory of value is mistaken. After that, we’ll move on to what is called the socialist calculation debate and look at authors who argue whether it is possible to centrally plan a modern economy while maintaining prosperity and democratic freedoms. The most important participants in this debate are the neo-classical socialists Oscar Lange and Abba Lerner, and the Austrian economists Ludwig von Mises and F. A. Hayek.

Q: How are classes taught and what is the learning environment like?

A: The class will be shared-inquiry dialogue. I will not be lecturing the students — we will all read the arguments of the authors and come to class ready to explain, ask questions and explore the implications of what the authors say. The goal is for students to take responsibility for their own understanding, and for them to learn how to better understand texts and arguments with the help of their peers.

Q: What are the main elements of this course?

A: Students will turn in brief notes and annotations of the assigned at-home readings, and we will have shared-inquiry discussions in class. There will also be one or two writing assignments. 

Q: Which intellectual or professional skills will students develop through the course that will help them prepare for careers in the private sector?

A: Students will finish the course as more independent analytical readers and thinkers. They will practice reasoning, listening, understanding and making arguments. Students will gain confidence in their civil speaking skills through discussing difficult topics in a group.

Q: How will this course benefit those interested in serving in the public sector, for example?

A: The future of our country — and the world — depends on whether people can learn to talk to one another about difficult issues reasonably and civilly. This course helps students to examine the truth and practical importance of difficult ideas together. 

Molly Loonam

Senior Marketing Outreach Coordinator, School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership

ASU honors student connects with Ukrainian refugees through volunteer work

November 14, 2022

Sarah Martin, a sophomore political science major in Barrett, The Honors College at Arizona State University, used hip-hop dancing — a uniquely American art form — to connect with Ukrainian refugees in Poland.

Martin spent a week in May working with international organization Global Volunteers in Siedlce, Poland, teaching English and participating in activities with Ukrainians who fled their homeland amid the Russian war on Ukraine, which began in February. The refugees were mostly mothers with young children. Photo of Sarah Martin with Ukranian children in Poland Sarah Martin, a sophomore in Barrett, The Honors College, does face painting with Ukrainian children in Poland as part of her volunteer work abroad this past summer. Download Full Image

“I told the mothers I was a dancer, and that immediately piqued their interest and broke the ice,” said Martin, who participated in competitive hip-hop dancing for seven years in Washington, D.C.

“These small connections are important for breaking through. It was something I wasn’t expecting: to form connections in Poland with moms and kids who were in such a difficult situation but who were so open and accepting. It was really a life-changing experience.”

According to Emily Johansen, Global Volunteers director of strategic partnerships, her organization offers domestic and international programs in which volunteers serve for one, two or three weeks. Global Volunteers has programs in 14 countries and five U.S. communities.

Programs focus on delivering essential services to eradicate hunger, improve health and enhance cognition; teaching conversational English; supporting community development; serving as classroom resources for gifted learners; and providing individual or small-group tutoring.

Global Volunteers also supports communities by working hand in hand with local people on projects that they have identified as important to their long-term development, Johansen said.  

When the war broke out in Ukraine and Poland received hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees, Global Volunteers’ community partner in Poland asked for assistance in supporting these visitors in their country, Johansen said. That’s where volunteers like Martin came in.

Photo of Sarah Martin reading with Ukrainian children in Poland

Sarah Martin reads with Ukrainian children in Poland. Photo courtesy of Sarah Martin

Martin was involved in providing activities for Ukrainian refugees, with the aim of offering some comfort, relaxation and a temporary respite from the worry and heartbreak brought on by conflict in their country, Johansen said.

The Ukrainian mothers and children came to Reymontówka Manor House, a community center and lodge for volunteers, to participate in activities in the afternoon and share meals with volunteers, she said.

For over 30 years, Global Volunteers has taught conversational English in Poland, and now that project continues with the Ukrainian refugees.

At a local elementary school, Martin worked on conversational English skills with Ukrainian students in grades 1–8. They used flashcards, picture books and worksheets and wrote every new word on the chalkboard. They also incorporated songs and games to reinforce learning and participated in dance lessons and discussions about American culture.

“I have always wanted to do something like this and go abroad to try to make a difference. This was a really fulfilling experience,” Martin said.

Martin said her experience in Poland also solidified her interest in working globally in the future.

“I want to focus on global affairs with my political science background, as well as human rights,” she said, adding that she’s interested in ambassadorial work.

Nicole Greason

Director of Marketing and Public Relations , Barrett, The Honors College