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Changing the World

19 May Posted by in Observations, Students | 4 comments
Changing the World

This is an adaptation of some brief graduation remarks I recently offered, so meant to be in the spirit of the season.

I watch a good bit of college basketball, and in the process see a lot of university ads. They’re mostly fairly awful, and it would be a service to have a good faith agreement to abolish the genre. There is enough variety, however, that I end up disliking some schools slightly less than others.

But that’s not the main point here. What impressed me last winter was the frequency of references to this or that college as the best framework for a student who wants to change the world.

On its face, the claim is absurdly grandiose, an ahistorical appeal to some of the worst impulses in American culture and perhaps particularly the adult vision of its youth variant. It’s really hard to change much of anything beyond the fairly personal and fairly local. An American college kid may have slightly more chance than peasant counterparts in underdeveloped countries, but not, realistically, by a lot. A good education ought, among other things, to explain the difficulty of deliberately changing significant patterns. The implications (usually) that individual action is what’s called for—a particular individual product of Iowa or Nevada—are also troubling, about which more in a moment.

The assumption that the world needs changing is also interesting, but perhaps most of us would agree that there is a lot that should be changed if only we, as individuals, could dictate what the changes will be.

So the theme is objectionable on historical, nationalistic and excessive-individualistic grounds. I would be open to an ad that argues that College X discourages this kind of thinking.

On the other hand, without backing off, there are some redeeming qualities. The appeal is better than “our college will help you maximize your earnings and live in a really large, environmentally unsustainable McMansion”. (I once shared a commencement stage with a department chair who murmured to each passing graduate, “Make money”; I was not amused.) And I’ve reached the stage of life, at the other end from our new college graduates, where I realize that some sense that one has done a little bit of good is part of my own effort at inventory, and while changing the world easily surpasses a little bit of good in bombast, it may at least point in a desirable direction. Giving people some sense of responsibility for desirable global goals, like greater peace or environmental responsibility, is at least a conceivable translation of “changing the world”.

But at the very least it would be useful to amend the approach with a more collaborative tone (which interestingly involves a feature that current employers say they want). Whatever we can do that introduces modestly desirable changes almost always involve a capacity to work with others, and our better educational programs are actually increasingly picking up on this.

As another saying goes, there’s no “I” in “team”. So let’s get back to the game.