The other night my roommate and I discussed ethnic slurs. He claimed that since people gave words their power, people could take it away. Using the “N” word, for instance, in non-hateful ways, works to change the meaning behind it.
I (probably not super respectfully) disagreed, which led him to a really interesting accusation: “What do you really know about the black American struggle?” I had to reply that I know nothing firsthand but would continue to deter the use of hateful words based on what I know about reality and sneaky institutionalized racism. “Yeah,” he said,
“you’re definitely a student, getting off on your own ideas instead of doing anything.”
This wasn’t my roommate’s finest hour, but I’d be lying if what he said didn’t make me think.
The collegiate experience is easy to lampoon. Days spent moving in a pot-laden haze from one nondescript room to another, spewing what feels like brilliance but is really just euphoria from the sound of your own voice, certainly substantiates the claim that people go to college these days to avoid the real world.
With that said, that accusation is usually leveled by someone who toils at a job he or she is miserable in. I think a lot of people let income stand in for reality. But those people can become complacently removed from reality and decision-making as much as the lofty student.
Furthermore, I’m aware that lofty stoners constitute only part of the college experience. Many college students do a lot of actual thinking. I think plenty go to school to learn about different walks of life and world issues, acquiring sympathy and very real opinions.
There is something problematic about this behavior though, which my roommate gets at. As college students, particularly those at the graduate level, we have made the decision to spend the majority of our professional time accruing knowledge about various experiences. Some of us even hope to continue the tradition of knowledge accrual by teaching. However, when dealing with real issues that involve the health, happiness and agency of other people, is thinking enough?
Take yours truly. Piggybacking on the idea that literature creates better, more sympathetic and socially active people, I’ve satisfied myself with a desired profession in literary criticism. Thinking about the ways in which literature operates and what it says about the human condition might be able to change my and others’ frames of reference, allowing them to apply critical knowledge to everyday life.
While I still believe in this idea, I’m quickly realizing its limitations. I’m taking a postcolonial ecology class that deals with topics like degenerative oil extraction in the Niger Delta and the Bhopal disaster—the fallout of commercial colonialism. As Westerners who benefit from commercial colonialism’s spoils, my cohort and I are starting to feel pretty disillusioned. One classmate claims she visits the gas pump less these days. Meanwhile, I sort of want to get a ticket to Kenya and start planting trees and standing down government forces.
Those offended by what they think is the college student’s willful ignorance are off the mark. Our job is, in fact, to engage with world issues. I think the problem with the intellectual is that he or she gets closer to the issue than most and then balks without knowing that he or she is balking most of the time.
The intellectual comes into close proximity with issues like persistent racism and poverty and thinks that learning about it will emanate benevolence from his or her well-read body—that the intellectual has done his or her part—whereas those who don’t engage at all fly under the judgmental radar. The intellectual walks on a foundation of relevant issues and more often than not seeks merely knowledge, not action. Hence, the backlash.
So things like my class—which require constant encounters with people in other countries who face hardship and actually do something about it—force the intellectual to do a personal inventory and wonder what he or she can physically do.
Listen, I’m not saying that every intellectual should pick a foreign cause and start working to solve it. With regard to action, I think the preliminary thing to do is to work within and ameliorate the world around you.
Humanity is humanity, and no job is too small. What I am saying is to think (which I’m sure plenty of you already do, but humor me) about the bigger problems you think about and wonder why you’re just thinking about them. Is it because you intend to utilize this information, or is it because you like the idea of all of this stuff in your head that you can call up at will during cocktail conversations?
Doing something is a process. It takes a game plan. I understand that. Honestly, this is all very easy for me to say behind the safety of my MacBook, cuddling my space heater. But who knows, maybe something like Amnesty International or another organization responding to causes you’ve thought a lot about has a place for you.