This year’s midterm elections boasted the highest voter turn-out rates in half a century — resulting in a major win for Democrats in the House of Representatives and significant strides in diversifying representation, especially for women of color. However, in general, Tuesday’s results left many on both sides of the aisle unsatisfied, myself included. I voted, and I’m glad I voted. But I am now more sure than ever that just voting is not enough.
Young people who share this feeling of wanting to go further to enact social and institutional change face varying and often conflicting considerations that make academic and career choices uncertain and daunting. Universities, the professional and social centers for these young people, are failing to provide the necessary support to help students work through these uncertainties. What’s more, the intellectual elitism rampant in these spaces often deters social and institutional change. It is much too easy and much too common for administrators, professors and students to limit themselves to the conceptual inquiries that dominate the modern academic sphere. However, universities and all of their participants have a responsibility to support and encourage the pursuit of social influence and reform. Our privilege as the intellectual elite allows and therefore requires that we explore our role as agents of change.
Careers grounded in the goal of social and institutional change range across countless fields and can take on wildly different forms. This fact makes it difficult for universities to provide support to students engaged in this pursuit. Still, there is room for growth in the way that universities are addressing the immense question of how students can effectively participate in change. The most immediate and accessible response is for universities to begin to offer more resources to students, particularly in the way of creating spaces dedicated to addressing this question. These spaces must go beyond the mere “Education for Democracy” that publications such as Inside Higher Ed have called for, which demand that students learn to be responsible citizens and engage in the political process. Instead, universities must recognize that students who have a privileged access to education carry a responsibility to contribute meaningfully to society.
In the context of universities, students who aspire to effect change face challenges beyond what can be fixed by mere institutional reform. There is a certain mindset of indifference and resignation embedded in the exercises of the high academic sphere that conflicts with the pursuit of social and institutional change. It is easy to get lost in the overwhelming power of the structures that govern our world when studying these structures so thoroughly. Our education, which encourages us to dive into the historical intricacies and theoretical complications of current social and political frameworks, often pushes us toward the conclusion that we have no ability to influence these forces in a meaningful way. Furthermore, there is a tendency in academia to look down upon the individual who works to move past these inclinations. Those who express a desire to enact on-the-ground change are often considered naive instead of ambitious. I believe it is essential for us to look beyond these large-scale, highly theoretical understandings that dominate university discourse. Appreciating the complexities of world systems does not mean we must disregard the power we could have to influence them. If anything, our depth of knowledge makes us even more capable of making a difference. I argue it is the responsibility of universities to engage in this process of reimagining.
Deeper still than university guidance or understanding the impact of personal influence, there is another consideration that I believe firmly cements our responsibility as agents of change. We must consider ourselves within a larger context and recognize the power and responsibility that our position of privilege entails. Dedicating our lives to social and institutional change can be difficult when many believe enacting such change is an unobtainable goal. However, I think it is the responsibility of students at elite institutions such as Brown to be aware that there is too much at stake to let uncertainty derail action. I cannot pretend to know if in the end this pursuit will be fulfilling or result in meaningful change. However, I can claim that if there is anyone to resign themselves to indifference, it is not the Brown student with access to a world of possibilities that most of the rest of the world could only ever dream of. Instead, this possibility of meaningful influence urges us, at the very least, to attempt to participate as agents of change.
Marysol Fernandez ’21 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and other op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.