Activism ought to turn you on. If you care about any one of the plethora of problems that this world faces, the idea of being passionate about that issue ought to psych you up, impassion you in some way.
Probably, though, you could care less about activism. And to be fair, it’s not really your fault.
The public image of activism is represented by a single-minded guy with a bullhorn, preaching his views to the world and living apart from society. He’s working on a single issue that, in his mind, is more important than all others. And so it’s no wonder why we don’t identify with the label of activism. We care about the world, but not about a single issue, and so we don’t see ourselves as activists.
But why equate activism with single-mindedness in the first place? Our economic and social institutions play an important role. When we go through school, we learn to think about the world in a certain way because of what we study. As we study finance, psychology or mechanical engineering, we learn to frame the problems that confront us in a particular way. Unless we’re talking with friends from a diverse freshman hallway, we discuss issues with our peers and conceive of solutions in our own particular language.
And when we graduate, it only gets worse. The Wharton student goes off into investment banking, while the Urban Studies major starts work for a non-profit. Communication between the two will slowly fade as they leave communal student life for private residences, moving into different neighborhoods and different social scenes. And what about the lady who cleaned the bathrooms on their hallway when they were freshmen? Most likely, they never even had a conversation in the first place.
So when activists speak about the issues that are important to them, we have difficulty relating. To us, the issue that they stand for is singular; it bears little impact on our lives because the activist is not speaking the language that we speak. The problems that he cares about are framed in terms of his community and his circumstances, not our own. And so we find it difficult to relate our own problems with his.
Yet everybody’s problems are fundamentally related. To understand that, we need to understand how we frame the world. For example, we often use an appeal to “fairness” to provide the moral backing for an argument. But, in the words of College junior Eileen Harper, “each philosopher and, I propose every rational human, has their own notion of fairness, and we would each pick a new word for it, if only we could.” As we become more entrenched in what we’re studying, we establish our own concepts of fairness, isolating ourselves from the language of others.
Of course, specialization is inevitable. For a discipline to excel in its task of analyzing and understanding the world, it must establish a specialized language. But the purpose of specialization is to make advances in the discipline that can then be made relevant to the rest of the world. As the theologian B.A. Gerrish wrote, the challenge to us, in our various disciplines, is to know our “whole subject well enough to go straight to the heart of the matter.”
As we continue with our education at Penn, we must develop ideas that make sense outside of the world of academia. Only in a society in which banking CEOs understand homeless families, and homeless families can understand the rationale of finance will we find progress that benefits everyone. If we do not understand how to make our studies relevant to the rest of the world, we will continue to tunnel further into the cocoons that represent our professions and our social status. But if we spend time with people in other disciplines, we become activists for progress without even knowing.
Russell Trimmer is a Wharton sophomore from Lexington, Va . His e-mail address is email@example.com.Comments powered by Disqus
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