Teaching Hope Against Hopelessness


Thank you, your comment will be visible after it has been approved.


March 16, 2023

Teaching Hope Against Hopelessness

The American University of Afghanistan and Me II

  • Afghan Diary
  • afghanistan
  • American University of Afghanistan
  • Education
  • taliban

Here is the second of a series of excerpts from the diary, recording my reflections on my online experiences with faculty and students in Afghanistan and exiled in Doha, Qatar, and around the globe. For the first entry see here.

Photo: Carol Mitchell

The Fall Semester, December 2022

My first semester is now winding down. I have been teaching one course, “Civic Engagement and the Politics of Small Things.” I was invited to develop the course illuminating how my research and writing on the politics of small things might be applied to an Afghan context. 

I am co-teaching the course with colleagues of a broad range of experiences and insights: Nadeem Nooristani, the chair of the Politics and Public Administration Department, Shoaib Rahim, the coordinator of the course, Muska Dustageer, a political theorist and lecturer on gender and on peace and security, and Obaidullah Baheer, a lecturer on transitional justice and international relations. They maintain competing judgments about the recent past and the possible future. They have different ties to the fallen republic, and to the Taliban. Obaidullah was raised and educated as a Salafist, his grandfather, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, is a major controversial figure: “a former mujahideen fighter once nicknamed the “Butcher of Kabul,” now among the senior political figures in the country attempting to shape a post-U.S. government with the Taliban. His father was jailed 6 years at a CIA torture site, as well as the Bagram Air Base.” (This I take from a bio of Obaidullah, though I now know that his grandfather and the Taliban have now split.) Shoaib was part of the Afghan government’s team negotiating with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, and he was also briefly mayor of Kabul. Muska was raised and educated in Denmark, returned to Afghanistan where she was a highly visible critic of government corruption and advocate of gender justice. Nadeem was a translator for many western press outlets and eventually the  CEO of a security agency, joining AUAF as a lecturer in politics and administration before the fall of Kabul. They agree that armed resistance to the Taliban is doomed to failure now, but have different ideas about how to proceed, and what is and what is not possible.

Their respect for each other, despite their differences, is striking, as is their ability to discuss the challenges of civic engagement apart from their competing political positions and experiences. I am reminded of a time, around 2005, when I was exploring with a group of Palestinians and Israelis the possibility of studying and nurturing “the politics of small things” in Israel-Palestine. We were interested in illuminating alternatives to repeated brutal wars and terrorism, alternatives to occupation and repression. Among the group were leftist Zionists, post-Zionists and radical anti-Zionists, those who supported a two-state solution and those who insisted on a single secular bi-national state, those who recognized the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish homeland, and those who categorically opposed the notion. Yet, when we explored the topic at hand, none of this came up. Examining the details of small alternatives to the prevailing regime suspended the need to agree on such issues. It’s intriguing to me how this experience is being repeated in my class.

Aside: I decided not to direct the research with my Palestinian and Israeli colleagues because the political complexities I would have had to navigate were beyond my expertise. The complexities of Afghanistan, if anything, are even more complex. But in this case, I am facilitating the activities of an institution that actively works on them, with leadership and faculty who themselves are, in a sense, active agents of the kind of politics that I have explored as a scholar and as a citizen. 

In the class: fighting against despair, seeking hope in an apparently hopeless situation, we pursue understanding putting aside grand strategies of liberation. There is a consensus among my colleagues on opposition to the Taliban as it is now ruling Afghanistan, as there was consensus among the Palestinian and Israeli scholars examining the abhorrent nature of Israeli occupation and domination of Palestine, but beyond the minimal consensus, their disagreement on the optimal political stance toward the Taliban has not come up. Of course, this may not be as significant as I am noting. The planned curriculum is deciding our focus. Understanding the readings and my lectures is the task at hand. The primary course goal is to provide the students grounds for hope, showing how they can consequentially act, both for themselves, their immediate social circles, and for wider social and political circles, i.e., their country.

I was asked to give a course on “the politics of small things,” but it was announced with the title of “Civic Engagement.” I understand why. No one who hasn’t already read my work, or read about it, would know what a course on small things would be about, and civic engagement is certainly involved. 

As I planned the course, I wanted to introduce the students to the thinkers and political actors who led me to develop my ideas about civic engagement. I developed a syllabus drawing upon my “teachers,” including Vaclav Havel and Adam Michnik, Erving Goffman and Hannah Arendt, as well as key works in the sociologies of Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, Georg Simmel, Talcott Parsons and Jurgen Habermas. I wanted to show the students how their works inform my understanding of the politics of small things, and how this understanding illuminates possible courses of action for them. 

The class opened with excitement. I often find that this happens when I teach. I have an opportunity to present the key insights that led me to teaching the class and share it with students. Over the years, I have done this with relative ease. My passion for and knowledge of my topic are apparent, and students respond. The challenge has been then to sustain the excitement and communicate the material effectively: something that I often find to be difficult and nerve-racking, both because it demands a lot from me and depends on student responses, given that I depend on dialogue and not lecturing in my teaching, as a matter of principle. 

Recently I was gratified to hear Siobhan Kattago’s lecture “Jeff Goldfarb and the Art of the Seminar,” which suggested that at least some people have recognized the principle and its implications. My courses are based on dialogue and uncertainty. I take a risk that the participants in the class will make sense of the topic at hand, working together to develop, and extend understanding. Sometimes the risk pays off, sometimes not.

As the semester is coming to an end, I think I can safely say, “so far so good” (their final assignments are now coming in). It’s a class that resembles my past teaching experiences, but in many ways it is distinctive. It resembles most closely the last class I taught fulfilling my responsibilities as a tenured professor at the New School, “Democracy and Social Justice,” and a course I co-taught with my dear friend and colleague, and my native informant on my dissertation research in Poland in 1973-4, Elżbieta Matynia, “Women and Men in Dark Times.” The former course was online, the latter was a large university class, open to students from all the divisions of the New School, serving a general education requirement. There were more resemblances, but this is sufficient for now.

In the opening session, I tried to summarize the project of the course. I explained how we will in the end address the question: “What is to be done?”  I hoped to provide students with an understanding that even within the very difficult circumstances in which they live, in exile or in the country, they can act effectively. I had a four-step plan: to take the students, and the faculty through an investigation of the cultural support for such action, “the relative autonomy of culture,” to illuminate the domain in which such action takes place, “publics,” and the kind of power the action can generate, “the politics as concerted action,” leading to a consideration of the roles they can play in Afghan society as emerging democratic intellectuals. We would move from 1, cultural freedom, to 2. publics, to 3. concerted action conceptualized as “the politics of small things,” to 4. focus on the role of the intellectual in democratic society, addressing the question “what is to be done?” The syllabus and the weekly assignments were arranged accordingly. 

On Cultural Freedom: I presented a sociological account of cultural freedom. It exists as artists and scientists get on with their cultural vocations, sustaining ongoing conversations with their predecessors and contemporaries, keeping alive and extending cultural traditions. Cultural creativity and practices have their own logic and trajectories. A practice is free if these trajectories persist and if the makers of culture reach their relevant audiences, despite inevitable political and economic constraints. 

Free Public Life: A relatively independent public life is crucial for the alternatives to the prevailing order of things, whether they be democratic or autocratic. I introduced to the students the approaches to the public of Jurgen Habermas, Hannah Arendt and Erving Goffman, and the way each shows how the creation of social space apart from the command is constituted, reflecting on the cultural and political implications of such social space. Through Habermas, we considered how the creation of a public sphere in relationship to the state and the economy is a constituent element of modernity. With Arendt, we examined the public domain as the realm of freedom in contrast to the private as the domain of necessity. In Goffman, we explored public space as that of social interaction through which the self is presented and social reality is defined. 

The power of the politics of small things: When people freely meet, grounded in shared principles, as equals, in their differences, speak and act in others presence, developing a capacity to and then act in concert, they create power as an alternative to the power of coercion. Drawing on the sociology of Erving Goffman, I have tried to demonstrate that this type of power, which for Arendt is politics as such, has been significant in the politics of East Central Europe, culminating in the development in Solidarność in Poland, and a significant force that contributed to the fall of previously existing socialism in the Soviet Union and around the Soviet bloc, and for that matter around the world. This power also has played, I have attempted to demonstrate, a significant role in the social movements and electoral politics of the United States, from the civil rights movement to the election of the first African American President of the United States. I shared with the students my understanding and analysis of these historical experiences, and they considered how they inform their understanding of the challenges they face in their personal and public life. I’ve been amazed how resonant these ideas have been for my co-teachers and our students. Their excitement charged our examination of the role of intellectuals in democratic society.

Intellectuals: “The intellectuals are special kinds of strangers, who pay special attention to their critical faculties, who act autonomously of the centers of power and address a general public, playing the specialized role in democratic societies of fostering informed discussion about pressing societal issues.” I come to this definition in the conclusion of the chapter of Civility and Subversion entitled “Who are the Intellectuals?”. In the course, I unpacked this answer, explaining how its potential significance for them builds upon our inquiry into cultural freedom, publics, and power as concerted action. I wanted to show them how and why they can be intellectuals supporting democracy. How they can help constitute democratic society, at large and writ small, as they draw upon their studies to make a difference in their social world. 

I think they followed me. Yet, given the difficulty of communicating through Zoom and given their reluctance to turn their video cameras on, I couldn’t be sure. With rare exceptions, I couldn’t meet them face to face. I have been depending on the responses of my co-teachers, who have been meeting the students in small study groups, to get a sense for how the class is responding. As I have been reading their written assignments, I have a sense that a significant minority of the students are following me and critically responding in significant ways, most are developing key insights, and some are just going through the motions of attending this required liberal arts class as they are committed to their more practical vocational pursuits. But even among them, it’s my guess, given the extreme circumstances of their lives, they are interested. The responses to the class from the administration and from the faculty who know about my teaching have also been encouraging. I’ll know more about the outcome of the class when I read their answers to the final assignment.

Here’s the exam:

Drawing upon the readings, lectures, and discussions in this class, respond to one of the following:

  1. How do you think the American University of Afghanistan makes a difference in your life personally and the life of Afghan society more generally? This answer should start with a consideration of our work in weeks 2 & 3 of the class and then draw upon the remainder of the course work.
  1. What are the opportunities for civic engagement in Afghanistan? Direction: this answer should start with a consideration of our work in weeks 4,5,6 & 7, focusing on publics, and then draw upon the remainder of the course work.
  1. How does the idea of “the politics of small things” inform your understanding of what is possible in Afghanistan? In answering this question, you should build upon your reading of the chapters of The Politics of Small Things and our consideration of the political power of concerted action in weeks 8, 9, 10 & 11, and then freely draw upon the remainder of the course work.
  1. Identify two intellectuals who have made a difference in Afghanistan, one who has engaged the broad Afghan public, the other who has engaged in “the politics of small things” in a more marginal public space. How has each of them made a difference? In answering this question, you should start with our work on intellectuals in weeks 12, 13 & 14, and then draw upon the remainder of the course work.

In their answers to these questions, I anticipate getting a clearer understanding of what the course has meant to them and will apply this to my future work with my Afghan students and colleagues…

Next semester, I will be joining the university as a full-time professor. I will also work closely with the provost, Victoria Fontan, to offer my counsel in guiding the faculty and the administration in the university’s development in a repressive context as it is becoming a “university in exile,” an institution of hope against hopelessness.


Leave a reaction with this article