Preparing students to change the world

A former student of mine was accepted into the Peace Corps last fall, and she recently wrote a nice blog post explaining why she made the decision to give over these years of her life to such a demanding and unconventional job.  I link to it not only because she says some nice things about me but also because it raised an issue I’ve been thinking about on and off since the Kony episode early last year.  I think we college teachers often don’t do a very good of encouraging people to try to make positive change in the world because we want to highlight the complexities that are our expertise.

I wrote about this at length a few months ago.  The point I want to add in this post relates to finding materials that are accessible to students but that do not necessarily meet the highest academic standards.  If you read Alecia’s post you’ll see that my recommendation to her of Nicholas Kristof’s book “Half the Sky” was a pivotal point in her transition from a conventional college career toward thinking about a life of public service.  Alecia is better off for having reading Kristof, and the world is better off for Alecia having read Kristof.  However, if you keep up with the international relations / comparative politics blogosphere, you know that Kristof gets only slightly less haterade dumped on him than Tom Friedman.  Kristof is frequently held up as the one of the worst examples of the White Savior’s Industrial Complex, presenting complex problems as overly simple and proposing solutions that take agency away from local activists and instead point to rich white people parachuting in and solving them by just caring enough.  I have the impression that many of these critics think that Kristof’s reporting is unredeemable and that the subjects of Kristof’s essays would be better off if he had never written about them.

So Kristof is simplistic and patronizing, but he also gets people interested and energized about issues of global justice.  What should we make of this?  On the one hand, many of these critics are world-class development experts and I believe them when they point out the shortcomings of Kristof’s proposed solutions to justice problems.*  On the other hand, Kristof makes these issues more engaging than we social scientists usually can, and he does a much better job of inviting non-experts to think of themselves as participants in global justice issues.  This latter point is key because I think it is the area where college educators most frequently lose students that might otherwise take an interest in issues of human rights and/or global development.

I see two issues here.  The first is that our theories of the world privilege large impersonal forces, like structure, institutions and culture that we individuals don’t have much influence over, and one of the main reasons for this is simply that individuals are hard to observe.  In a student’s mind, however, this can turn into an absence-evidence-is-evidence-of-absence thing where they think individuals genuinely don’t matter.

The second, and more relevant to this post, is that the attitude toward students (and citizens and even policymakers) too often seems to be that they are simply too likely to screw up and that therefore we should try to stop them from taking any action on human rights or poverty issues.  At the very least this is what comes across when a student excitedly says they just read or heard something by Kristof or Jeffrey Sachs or even Bono and now they want to do something.  I know the criticisms of these populizers like the back of my hand because I see them so often in the twitter/blogosphere, but I almost never see a productive discussion of how these newly energized students (and there are few people more energized than intellectually stimulated 20 year olds) can direct their energies into effective activism.

At its worst, I wonder if part of the reason for this is merely an attempt by some experts to preserve their status as experts.  The failure of the human rights and development communities to identify a scaffolded process to bring the interested public into their work  only supports this.

The upshot is that we can use these populizers for what they are good at, and then, as in Alecia’s case, leverage this enthusiasm by supporting it with some of the stronger academic and policy work on achieving international justice.  In order to do this more effectively, the human rights and development communities ought to spend more time figuring out ways to say more than “don’t do _x_” and be able to identify productive things that people can do when they interested in “our” issues.

Oh, and remember Alecia’s name.  She’s very smart, hard-working and passionate – she’s going to do things.

* I am going to avoid dropping any names in this post in an attempt to avoid unnecessary trouble