Teaching matters to Rob Reich, political scientist and philosopher of education

Rob Reich

Rob Reich

Aspects of justice and injustice are found in each of us, political scientist Rob Reich said Oct. 24 at "What Matters to Me and Why."

"It's very hard on the one hand to combine a love of or for humanity—a delight in being with people—with the recognition that people are the cause of enormous injustice," Reich said.

Reich discussed this "constant tension" at the academic year's inaugural conversation in the discussion series, which is sponsored by the Office for Religious Life. An associate professor of political science and, by courtesy, of education, Reich also has an appointment in the Ethics in Society program. During the forum, he discussed his personal values with an audience in the CIRCLE—the Center for Inter-Religious Community Learning and Experiences—at the Old Union.

While studying philosophy at Yale University, Reich developed an interest in teaching. But at the time, Yale had no school of education and only a small training program for the vocation.

So, when he graduated in 1991, he applied to Teach for America, an organization that places college graduates in schools in underserved districts throughout the country. Reich was assigned to teach in Houston. "I grew up in New Jersey," he said. "I'd never been to Texas, and I didn't want to go to Houston."

Instead, Reich decided to try working in post-Velvet Revolution Prague, but that only fueled his passion for teaching. "I applied to Teach for America again," he said, "and once again, they put me in Houston, so I accepted it as my fate."

Reich spent the next two years teaching sixth grade at Rusk Elementary School, just east of downtown Houston. After his first year, he said, the district superintendent fired most of the staff because of the school's poor performance. Reich was one of only five teachers at the school who continued to teach the next year. The overhaul did improve the administration, he said.

When Reich finished his two-year commitment, he wanted to continue teaching, but his Texas credentials were not transferable to another state. So he decided to apply for graduate school to combine his interests in philosophy and education. Reich completed a master's degree and a doctorate in philosophy of education at Stanford. Then, in 1998, he joined the faculty as an assistant professor of political science.

It is unusual for someone to be hired by the same institution where he did his graduate work, Reich said, but the Department of Political Science viewed him as an outside applicant because he came from the School of Education.

"I've always been a humanist in a sea of social scientists," Reich said, adding that the position has given him more freedom to pursue the deeper meaning of the questions he ponders rather than just the answers. This, in turn, has allowed him to tackle tough issues, such as the "constant tension" between having a love for humanity but also realizing that people are responsible for injustice in the world.

"Part of what drives me to say that we could so easily become that which we despise is what I see as the sense in which we are all probably, every day, committing small injustices, large injustices, that socially happen to be defined at the moment as something that's not a matter of justice or injustice," he said.

For example, in one class, The Ethics and Politics of Public Service, he has students make a list of things such as where their clothes were made, where their food comes from and what investments they make.

"It's not that all of these things are injustice-causing activities, but that they probably don't know—just as I don't know the source of all of my consumer interactions with the world," Reich said. "We are all happily unaware of the massive interconnections we have with the broader world."

At the close of the conversation, a student asked Reich how he rationalizes being a professor instead of fighting injustice in some other, more direct way.

"I happen to get a particular pleasure out of teaching," he responded. "I hope I can be effective here. This is about the limits of being a human. If I could live 10 lives, I could find 10 things that would be interesting, worthy adventures."

The next "What Matters to Me and Why" discussion will feature Jenny Bilfield, artistic and executive director of Stanford Lively Arts, at noon Nov. 7 in the Old Union.

John Cannon is a science-writing intern at the Stanford News Service.