What with the nature of philosophy, it’s hard to understand how to make a difference in the world sometimes. This is a problem of all esoteric, dusty bound-volume type studies, and I’ve been discussing it with a few of my friends these past several weeks, especially because we are wondering, along with much of the rest of the nation, how “yes we can” applies to us. Yes we can teach courses about the history of statistics? Yes we can spend our lives publishing articles a total of twenty people read, only of one them closely? Yes we can be the only living people who actually use libraries for their books?
Academia seems awfully far from “real life” some days, and that has a lot to do with the educational systems we live within. Change takes time and effort far beyond what we want to admit (I certainly am frustrated about it on a daily basis), and that goes for much more than finishing our PhDs or Masters or BAs. We don’t live in small communities of 20 people, where everyone knows each other, gossip travels at the speed of light, and group decisions can be made in a large dining room. Instead, we’re embedded in bureaucratic regulations, curricula, evaluation metrics and procedures, and we’re surrounded by a swirling tornado of thousands of people, many of whom we see only once. Systems of society are bred for anonymity, and we watch our professors and students float by as faces, maybe as names, and rarely as complete people. But as is clear to anyone raising a child, in a long-term relationship, or dealing with the same person for years on end, people don’t change in the space of a semester. Their deeper problems, the ones that when considered as a whole bedevil our country, change over years only after hundreds or thousands of hours of exhausting effort.
So… yes we can…? I think the first error of bowing under pessimism is to believe that change matters only if we can overthrow or reform the entire system at once. In a sense, it is our obsession with being in control of the bureaucracy that perpetuates the anonomity and heedlessness of its gears, turning and grinding. Instead, we should look not to take over the bureaucracy, but to take on the problems of people. In words, being relevant is a simple matter of taking on the problems of others as your own. What those problems may be is complicated in that it depends on your skills, your character, your power, and your ability to command the respect of those you seek to help. In academia, taking on the problems of others as your own can mean many things, some of which are remarkably revolutionary if done en masse. Teach courses that help your students understand and address the problems they face in their lives — this is of particular relevance to the humanities, so often dried out and pasted over with jargon. In research, make at least one of your ongoing projects of practical use to a community alive today: study the history of a town in ways that compare and contrast its economic and cultural policies to other communities, or tackle a thorny problem of articulating the moral basis for a group seeking equal rights or political redress, or consider the literature of a culture in a way that aims at responding to or inspiring its contemporary authors.
Take on the problems of others and measure progress in terms of engagement, in the old civic tradition, instead of numbers, fancy words or power plays. There are plenty of ways of achieving that, and when we focus on people instead of systems, we may at last act with satisfaction and for the good with the best of our ability. Times will come when systems are ripe for change, but to say “yes we can” requires committed engagement, not unceasing control.