James Arvanitakis: Undermining Class Based Ideology

"I ended up traveling around the world, an around the world ticket, and as I was traveling through parts of Latin America, I ended up in some remote places and actually did a tour of a copper mine, an old copper mine. And while I was in that copper mine, I witnessed children, eight, nine, 10 years old, working in these mines. And at the time, it reminded of my niece and nephews being about that age, and it really shocked me into saying that the ultimate capital, you have free markets without any controls, always look for the cheapest source of labor. And in poor countries, unfortunately, their cheapest source of labor is children."

Professor James Arvanitakis is currently on a Fulbright Fellowship as the Milward L. Simpson Visiting Professor – University of Wyoming. A former economist and free market advocate, James changed his position after witnessing child and indentured labour. After 9 years of working in finance, he has since worked with a cross-section of organizations across Australia, Asia, the Pacific and Europe. With out ever changing world, James created a personal blog highlighting his research, world events, social media presence, links, and more. Thank you, James! As the Pro Vice Chancellor of Research and Graduate Studies at Western Sydney University, Professor Arvanitakis is currently on a 12-month Fulbright Fellowship as the Milward L. Simpson Visiting Professor with the University of Wyoming. Thank you, James!

Emy DiGrappa (00:00):

Hello, my name is Emy DiGrappa. Each week we bring you stories, asking our guests the question why. We learn about passion, purpose, and the human experience. Brought to you by Wyoming Humanities, with the generous support of the Wyoming Community Foundation, this is What's Your Why.

Emy DiGrappa (00:32):

Today we are talking to Professor James Arvanitakis. He is a professor at Western Sydney University. He's a lecturer in the humanities, and a member of the university's Institute for Cultural and Society. Welcome James.

James Arvanitakis (00:50):

Well, thank you Emy, how are you?

Emy DiGrappa (00:50):

Good. And I'm so looking forward to just learning about your journey, because I was reading your bio, and that you were a former economist, a free market advocate, and you changed your position after witnessing child and indentured labor. And when did that all take place?

James Arvanitakis (01:11):

That all happened, now, we're going back about almost 20 years. So I was working in the finance industry, I had a good 10 years in the finance industry, really quite a successful career. I was the child of immigrant parents here in Australia, and the big focus was having a safe and stable and sort of wealthy lifestyle. You know, when you're working class and you grow up in a working class family, mum and dad wanted me to have a job where I got to wear a suit, and working in banking was that opportunity. And they felt that we had secured the future by me getting such a job.

Emy DiGrappa (01:53):

When you were working as an economist, or working in the business, wearing a suit and tie, as you were saying, how did you witness child and indentured labor? What was it that took you down that road?

James Arvanitakis (02:08):

I worked for 10 years, and I decided to take a year off. I was in quite a privileged position that I sort of went, okay, I'm going to take a year off and travel, because I'd spent so much time working that I realized that most of my twenties had passed by. And I was like, okay, I'm going to take a year off and travel.

James Arvanitakis (02:30):

And I ended up traveling around the world, an around the world ticket, and as I was traveling through parts of Latin America, I ended up in some remote places and actually did a tour of a copper mine, an old copper mine. And while I was in that copper mine, I witnessed children, eight, nine, 10 years old, working in these mines. And at the time, it reminded of my niece and nephews being about that age, and it really shocked me into saying that the ultimate capital, you have free markets without any controls, always look for the cheapest source of labor. And in poor countries, unfortunately, their cheapest source of labor is children.

Emy DiGrappa (03:22):

And so how did that change your life? Because it sounds like it was a life changing experience.

James Arvanitakis (03:28):

Yeah, it changed my life dramatically because what I found out was that the metals that were being collected from this mine were making their way into all sorts of different products, including cars. And I kind of drew a connection between my choice as a consumer and the impacts that was having around the world. And so I truly believed that economic globalization was going to help lift people out of poverty. And I think elements do, but I also realized that it made people very vulnerable.

James Arvanitakis (04:09):

And what I follow that up with was after I got back, I started looking into the way that some communities in Australia were being left behind, and the consequences of that. And Australia's got its own experience of rust be communities. And so this kind of made me realize that we as humans, yeah we need to be part of the economy, but the economy also needs to meet our human needs as well. And not just [inaudible 00:04:39] production, and we need to think about those who are left behind, those who are vulnerable, and those who aren't as privileged as what we are. And so I became really focused on understanding, well, what economic policies could we develop that could take humanity into account?

Emy DiGrappa (04:55):

And so did you go back to school after that to get a different degree, and become a lecturer?

James Arvanitakis (05:03):


Emy DiGrappa (05:03):


James Arvanitakis (05:04):

Yeah, I did. I actually ended up working for some human rights and environmental rights and justice organizations. And while I was doing that, I decided to go back and do a master's in environmental policy. That was really focused on the economics of the environment, and following I went off and did a PhD in philosophy. And what I became really interested in was, it was at that point that I became really interested in understanding social relationships and how we as humans build these relationships.

James Arvanitakis (05:39):

What makes societies function? What makes society begin to fall apart? And not just societies, but also communities. And so that's how I became obsessed with the humanities, because I was real into the economics of life, and then I became obsessed with the humanities because I started trying to understand the connections that people make and how people carry on their lives and what follows from there.

Emy DiGrappa (06:06):

And how do you translate that into your work as a lecturer in the humanities? How do you work with students, how do you open their eyes to other issues that are happening in society and how people are making those connections? What's your teaching style?

James Arvanitakis (06:25):

Yeah, I always approach my classes from the perspective that my students, they're not empty vessels, they have this really good knowledge. They had life experiences. And some of them will have life experiences that I will not have. I've been lucky enough to be doing some teaching at the University of Wyoming, and I got to spend time there with students who have lived in rural communities their whole lives. And here in Australia, I've worked with communities with refugee backgrounds.

James Arvanitakis (06:57):

And so I always begin by thinking that the students in the room have as much to teach me as I have to teach them. That's the first part. And so the point of, I think, of being a classroom is to have conversations in an area where people can actually relate to the theoretical perspectives that I'm imparting on them, but relate to them in their own lives.

James Arvanitakis (07:22):

So for me, when you start talking about humanities and you start talking about the different theorists and the different ideas around the humanities, everything from the different traditions of thinking such as liberalism, to engaging with the arts. What you want to do is you want to present to people like a piece of clay. You help them see the clay for what it is, and then you get them to shape it depending on their own experiences.

James Arvanitakis (07:50):

And that way you create, I suppose, an area which is, what I describe, is not only a safe space to discuss controversial ideas, but also a brave space where people can challenge those ideas, apply them to their own lives, and share different perspectives. And for me, that is the role of education, to have people feel empowered by the education journey. Not just see it as something that I need to memorize things and just get through the exam.

Emy DiGrappa (08:20):

Tell me about when you were recognized, it says that you are recognized internationally for your innovative teaching style. And is that what you're talking about, is that you allow your students to really express and be open about who they are and where they come from, and you don't have a doctrine that you're teaching them? You're really allowing them to figure their own way out and find their own answers.

James Arvanitakis (08:49):

Well, that's exactly right, yeah. So in Australia, I've taught classes with up a thousand students. So you can imagine that there's these big lecture rooms full of these students. And then what happens in the style that we teach in Australia is that you have these big classes where you lecture, and then you have these breakout classes of, say 20 to 30 students, which assistant professors help run those classes.

James Arvanitakis (09:16):

But even in those large classes, what I've always been able to do is create an environment, students are open to discussing complex issues with their peers. And what I really want is for people to be challenged in the way. So I think education must make us feel a bit uncomfortable, because we need to be exposed to new ideas. But at the same time, you want people to take those ideas and apply them to their own lives, their own experiences.

James Arvanitakis (09:46):

And that's the best way, I think, for people to think about the world's different perspectives, because if I can apply another piece of knowledge to my life, and then I can then share it with you in a way, and yo can share with me, well that identifies that we have different perspectives, because no two people will have exactly the same perspective. If they can do that, then they can also find ways to communicate with each other. And for me, that is incredibly important. I think it's a way of empowering people.

James Arvanitakis (10:17):

Because my philosophy is that when we're having these discussions in class, then what we also want is for people to be able to have these discussions when they go home, and when they sit in a cafe with their peers or their friends, or a bar with their mates. And so it's a way of getting people to think of knowledge and the humanities as being alive, not sitting somewhere in a textbook.

Emy DiGrappa (10:44):

Do you find in your studies and in your research that the Australian school system is similar to the United States school system?

James Arvanitakis (10:54):

There are lots of similarities and some differences, and I think that's an interesting part is, again, as a humanities lecturer, is learning how to negotiate and understand the different expectations of the students that are in your class. So in Australia, we have a really highly subsidized education system. So students, I suppose, may not always... they're not paying as much. So some students will come to their class without the same kind of economic drivers to feel that they need to get the most out of it. Whereas a lot of students in the US, they're obviously entering debt, and so they want to get as much as they can out of this moment. And so some of them have different motivations.

James Arvanitakis (11:40):

The other thing is in Australia, the way that the system is designed is in some of those large classes that I mentioned before, their class is the compulsory units. So students have to do them before progressing to the next phase of their education. So often students will come into those classes without really wanting to be there. So part of what I do is to try and get them to take the curriculum and apply it into their own interests. So I'll make the curriculum flexible enough that if I have an engineering student in my class who has no interest in the humanities, I then say to them, well, okay, let's talk about the importance of the humanities and engineering.

James Arvanitakis (12:22):

Get them to think about user centered design, and get them to think about the way that historically, say, a lot of the products that were designed in the world were designed by men, without actually thinking about the way that women may apply those products differently. And so it's always about getting people to take the knowledge and apply it to their own experiences, but also to what they're hoping to get out of something. And it's that flexibility, I think, that has been recognized in the way that I teach.

Emy DiGrappa (12:55):

Do you have the same income disparities that we have in the US, and do you experience the social economic differences in your students and how that plays out, even though, as you were saying, that education is largely subsidized?

James Arvanitakis (13:14):

Yeah. I don't think the income disparities in Australia, I suppose, are as harsh as they are in the US, but yeah, we do have these quite confronting disparities. And in my class there's been times where, you know, at one time a few years ago, I noticed in one of these large lecture rooms, that I had a couple of students in the back row, and they were sleeping in the class. And it's quite a loud class, if you can imagine, I play music and I'm very interactive. And two in classroom that are now sleeping, so I walked over to them afterwards and I said, "Hey guys, if this class is not working for you," and what I discovered was that they were working night shifts and then sleeping in their car to come to class.

James Arvanitakis (13:56):

And so one of the things I was able to do was get them to be able to sleep, be able to organize somewhere for them to sleep on campus for three hours before coming to class, so at least that way they had some energy, so they weren't falling asleep during a class that was a pathway for them to get out of this kind of situation. So I think, as educators as well, we are often on the front line of these disparities, and we need to think about what we can do to create an environment where we can help empower those students, confronting those disparities, to help them find a pathway out.

Emy DiGrappa (14:37):

Well, James, what kind of family did you grow up in? What did your parents do?

James Arvanitakis (14:42):

I grew up in a very working class family. My dad carried bricks for a living, and my mom ironed for a living. Migrants from Greece to Australia in the sixties, both from very sort of modest backgrounds. It was a classic migrant story where both of them came out with just a suitcase, and they set up lives. So mum and dad were very keen for me to have a stable kind of life, and that's why they encouraged me to enter, the first chance I got, to go to university, and they really helped me get there.

James Arvanitakis (15:20):

What was interesting was when I got to university, I didn't know what university actually was, but I knew it was a place where it would open up opportunities for me. And so I've always been incredibly thankful for my parents, and I've been lucky enough to experience things that they could have not dreamed of in some of the travel I've done, and that's followed the ability to work with my mind and work with people around the world. I feel incredibly privileged.

James Arvanitakis (15:50):

And so I think that has really helped me understand the perspectives of many of my students who come to university. The thing about my university here in Australia, Western Sydney, is that any year between 50 or 60% of the students enrolling are first in family to come to university, so the first members of their family. And that was me, I was the first member of my family enter higher education. And so they turned up, they're stunned, they're overwhelmed.

James Arvanitakis (16:22):

And when I did my first year of university, I failed five of my first eight subjects, and I almost left and decided that university wasn't for me. And I was lucky enough to have some peer support, but also have some great lecturers, some professors who guided me. And so I now feel that I'm kind of trying to pay it forward in a way, by helping those students who are there for the first time and are really struggling, to give them the kind of support to get through that next phase of their journey.

Emy DiGrappa (16:56):

As you do that, and as you work with students, what do you think are the biggest barriers of young students dropping out of school and not finishing their education? What holds them back?

James Arvanitakis (17:10):

I think there's probably a few things that create those barriers. I think one is the idea that they don't belong. For a lot of students when they come to university, especially if they don't come from a family where higher education is the norm, it's easy for them to have a setback and not have that kind of resilience when it comes to the education system. And so they'll have a setback and they'll just think, oh well, I don't have this in me.

James Arvanitakis (17:42):

And so I think the first thing you need to do is create an environment where those setbacks are seen as learning journeys. And I've developed this concept called mistake ability, where students are encouraged to learn from their mistakes, their errors, if they have a university setback. I think that's one.

James Arvanitakis (18:04):

I think sometimes it's the economic imperative to need to go out and earn money, because of their financial situation. And again, that's where I think it's really important that we set up, I suppose, flexible learning environments. So if a student has to work, they can also learn in different ways. And so Western Sydney University, I've had students who both work full time, so they're working 40, 45 hour weeks, as well as studying full time, if they're carrying a full time study load. And so then I go, okay, what's the environment we can set up to make sure that they can achieve both those things?

James Arvanitakis (18:47):

The third thing, I suppose, is just not being able to understand the university culture. When I talk about culture, I talk about the everyday practices and expectations, and university for some people is you're entering almost a different world. There's all these formalities or all these kinds of expectations, everything from the way you write, and needing to referencing source materials, to expectations about when and how things are to be submitted, and all these sort of range of things, all these complex power relationships.

James Arvanitakis (19:30):

And so it's like any time you enter a different culture, you need to understand the norms and expectations. And so what we need to do is break down those so that everybody can understand them. And so that way people can feel at home as quickly as possible. And part of that is to make sure that people can build social networks, and they feel supported rather than they're on their own.

Emy DiGrappa (19:55):

They feel supported by what? What was the last part?

James Arvanitakis (19:59):

They feel supported rather than being on their own.

Emy DiGrappa (20:03):

Oh, okay. So I think my last question is the question about the millennial generation, and the disappointment in going to college and maybe coming out with huge debt, or not, but not finding a job, not being able to use their degree. What are the issues that you face with your younger generations? And sometimes they don't find the value of education, because it gets so discouraging.

James Arvanitakis (20:39):

That's a really important question that we need to ask. I mean, the first thing, I suppose, is that there's value in education regardless. I think having an educated citizenry is a positive thing regardless, because we can look at everything in the world, all the challenges that we face, from a COVID-19, to the changing climate, to changing migration patterns. And I think all these things are impacting our lives in a globalized world. And so I think having an educated citizenry is just a really positive thing.

James Arvanitakis (21:17):

I think the challenges of the changing workforce are really difficult to confront, and I think this is where the higher education sector, universities and colleges, the private sector and the government, the different levels of government, need to come up with strategies and help both local communities, but also individuals begin to negotiate the changing nature of the workforce.

James Arvanitakis (21:46):

There was a really great report last year that highlighted the fact that, it looked at 250 different cities across America and 3000 counties, and how they all have been impacted by the changing work patterns, and we can see how the changes are happening. What we're lacking is a coordinated policy response to those changes. And I think that there's a real space here for communities to become creative in the way that they respond, because unemployment doesn't just hit an individual, I think unemployment can hit a whole community. So certain regions feel like they're being left behind. And I think we need to be able to think about that in a more creative way. Everything from telecommuting to having regions have more creative response to gaps in manufacturing.

James Arvanitakis (22:47):

But for individuals, I always tell my students that I applied for 21 jobs before I got my first interview. And that, at the time, seemed really difficult and disheartening, and my first job was not my ideal job, but it was the one that I got, it helped me get the foundations to launch my career. So it is an incredibly disruptive time, and I think what people need to think about was how can we best be armed for that disruption? And I think education is still one of the best ways to be armed, to help individuals and communities respond to this challenging time.

James Arvanitakis (23:29):

And I will say, I think education in humanities is one of the most important things, because the foundation of the humanities is for us to learn to critically think and to critically adapt to complex situations. So one of big things that I've tried to implement in Western Sydney is that no matter what degree you're pursuing, that you need to actually be exposed to some of the critical thinking in the humanities. I think it's an incredibly powerful tool to be able to apply in any career that we pursue.

Emy DiGrappa (24:03):

Okay. So here's my challenge to you, James. When you say you're a lecturer in the humanities, and I just walked up to you on the street and I said, what do you do for a living? And you said, I'm a lecturer in the humanities. And I said, what are the humanities? What would you say to me?

James Arvanitakis (24:19):

And I respond to that question, I do get that question quite a lot, is I talk about how it's understanding the complexity of human relationships. So why communities work together, why they function, why they fall apart, and understanding us both as individuals, and what are the drivers of us as individual humans, as well as understanding the social relationships that follow.

James Arvanitakis (24:48):

One of the things when I, my first degree was economics, and one of the things that economists always argue is that we're all the same, we're all driven by the same desires. We all want to maximize our utility, maximize our profit, maximize our income. Whereas when you studying the humanities, you understand that we as individuals are influenced by different factors, our culture, our religion, our community, our parents, our friends, what we see on TV. And it's this complex nature of us as individuals, and what makes us tick, that gives us insights into how communities work. And if you can understand that, then we can work together to create a future that's not only better for us, but better for our children and future generations.

Emy DiGrappa (25:36):

Wow. That's good to hear, and it's been excellent talking to you. Thank you so much, James.

James Arvanitakis (25:41):

[inaudible 00:25:41] I really enjoyed chatting to you.

Emy DiGrappa (25:50):

Thank you for joining us for this episode of What's Your Why, brought to you by Wyoming Humanities, with support from Wyoming Community Foundation, and generous supporters like you. To learn more, go to thinkwhy.org, subscribe and never miss a show.