The Search for the Just Society

A course on first principles and on the application of those principles to the establishment of just socio-political arrangements and institutions.

developed by Ed Dodson

At the 1999 conference at Arden, Delaware, I had an opportunity to describe to a group of attendees the design of this course, which I have been teaching at the Henry George School in Philadelphia for the last seven or eight years. The purpose of this "workshop" was to interest others in teaching the course at other locations.

It is no secret that many adults complete their childhood education and even earn college degrees without gaining a working knowledge of how societies are organized or how they came to be organized in the way they are. My experience as a teacher at the Henry George School in Philadelphia (supported by what I observed as a student working toward a masters degree in liberal arts) brought me to develop this course in an effort to fill this gap. Studying the political economy presented in Henry George's works is often a daunting exercise for many students. This course helps to provide context to the scope of material associated with political economy.

People generally have acquired over time and from somewhere a sense of whether a society is or is not just. I begin the course by exploring their own ideas regarding justice, taking them on a journey around the globe to rank societies on a scale of zero to ten according to how just they believe various societies are (based on what they know about them). We then explore the characteristics that are indicative of just societies. The pace and depth of the discussion depends very much on the length of the course -- which optimally ought to last eight to ten weeks. In abbreviated fashion, I have conducted the course as a one-day discussion/seminar.

The bulk of the course material is then devoted to history, the history of how human groups developed into societies and how societies came to be dominated by hierarchies. We see warrior-chieftains becoming kings, their warrior allies coming an aristocracy. We see the knowledge-bearers becoming shamans and practicing the priestcraft. We see these two dominant groups sharing and grabbing power and privilege -- cemented for centuries by rituals, superstitions and all manner of subterfuge. We see the producers of the societies increasingly oppressed, the product of their labor confiscated to support the hierarchical elite, themselves often enslaved. The discussion fills in the details of how this occurred in the Old World and then in the Americas. At the same time, I introduce into the discussion the insights of keen observers who began to raise questions about the status quo.

The lessons of history are there, and in the telling of the story the message comes across very clearly. People respond, most importantly by thinking more deeply. Henry George is introduced as one of history's great thinkers, in a direct line from Thomas Paine -- as two who sought truth and were willing to challenge conventional wisdoms irrespective of the consequences to themselves personally. My hope is always that those who complete this course will then have an overpowering desire to come back to the school to study the political economy of Henry George. The course has thus far not met this objective.

In addition to the high enjoyment I get from teaching the course and helping others to think through very complex ideas about justice, the research required eventually developed into material for a book-length manuscript. If all goes well, the book will be available by the end of 1999 -- in two volumes, for anyone who might want an indepth reference book for their own teaching effort. The course also stimulated me to establish an educational website under the name, The School of Cooperative Individualism. An instructor's manual for the course is posted on the website for downloading. My objective with the website is to create one of the most content-rich resources on political economy available.

I will end this overview with the same offer I made to those who attended the Arden workshop. If anyone is interested in teaching this course I will be more than happy to be of assistance. Send me an email at: [email protected].