Nobody asked out loud how best to save the world. We didn’t have to.
I was sitting in class in Van Meter in 2011 or 2012 when a discussion on socioeconomic decline in Baltimore took a philosophical turn. At a surface level, we talked about things like how to become locally involved. On another level, we talked about something much bigger. Baltimore’s socioeconomics was a prompt just abstract enough, just far enough from our own experiences, that the best answer seemed to be to reflect on our own personal philosophical templates for how best to achieve change.
Four years after graduating from Goucher, I sometimes think back to that discussion and what it revealed about how Goucher students view the world and how to fix it – and how, in turn, Goucher shows the world to its students.
“Start a civic organization,” “build a new social network,” “galvanize people with social media campaigns,” were some of the ideas proposed. While there was no shortage of variety, they all had one thing in common, which was that change required the creation of something new; it was necessarily a challenge to established norms. Better to work for an NGO critical of the World Bank rather than for the World Bank. Better to work for a nonprofit rather than the private sector. Let’s describe it as an outside-the-system mentality of changemaking.
Only one student proposed anything else to help Baltimore, and it indeed seemed an especially dull idea. “There are already plenty of great causes and organizations in Baltimore,” they said. Why not join one?
That turns out to be important.
“Change” is an abstract notion. But insofar as the attitude one takes toward it will inform the thousands of important decisions one will make throughout life about career or lifestyle, it has real consequences. Liberal arts students should recognize that adopting an outside-the-system change maker’s mindset – and surrounding themselves with people who share that mindset – potentially distorts awareness of what is actually achievable, paving the way to disillusionment and disappointment. A wiser mindset is one which recognizes that worthwhile change usually comes from demonstrating success within recognized roles or organizations. That, in turn, gives you authority and power—recall that one of reasons Barack Obama gave for attending law school after his years as a community organizer in Chicago (a little-recognized role if there ever was one) was to acquire power.
In my case, the belief that I could succeed outside of recognizable roles or institutions caused me to make impractical choices. My first two years out of college I spent determined to find ways to become a short story writer or novelist — jobs which don’t exist. Goucher can hardly be blamed for foisting that ambition on me, but it did give it room and oxygen to breathe and take on life of its own.
More immediately, I decided that I would go overseas to teach English, first in Beijing and then Hong Kong. I had a great time, and I don’t regret it. But I can now acknowledge that it likely set back progress on career advancement as a journalist, in part by postponing a reckoning with what I wanted for a career. No professor ever directly encouraged this off-the-beaten-road journey of mine. But I can only observe that I departed Goucher as thoroughly committed to that journey as ever.
Why was it, that day in the classroom in Van Meter, that so many students, myself included, immediately conceived of change as something that came from the outside, rather than from within?
One reason may be the homogeneity of political and social beliefs at schools like Goucher. This can make it easy to imagine that alternative perspectives are one-dimensional, lacking in complexity and merit. From that starting point, it is natural to imagine that one already possesses the only quality one needs in order to create something different: willpower. But that is short-sighted. Willpower uncoupled to a recognizable organization or career path or institution will earn you only frustration. Experience outside college quickly shows that not only are practical barriers more taxing to political or social ideals than one anticipates – you’ll find ways to rationalize the compromising of any number of beliefs in order to have a stable paycheck – but also that the establishment institutions or organizations that are all too easy to vilify from campus are in reality constrained by any number of practical realities. In theory, students appreciate those practical realities. In practice, they take some time to hit home.
A smarter attitude to changemaking begins with recognizing the limits to how much change you can achieve. This is a notion intimately tied to the recognition that good solutions already exist. This may sound abstract, but it successfully diagnoses problems in any number of social arenas. In politics, there is no substitute for voting and civic engagement. In journalism, there is no magic antidote to declining readership in an era of instantaneous information, only quality journalism. And so on.
From this follows the recognition that change is most effectively delivered by accruing power within existing institutions and organizations. Achieving success this way demonstrates credibility, and allows people in positions of power to trust you by giving you some of their power. And being in power puts you in a far stronger position to bring change than being out of power.
Let’s assume the two assumptions here are correct: that change is best achieved by individuals who leverage power accrued within established institutions (not from outside them), and that liberal arts colleges like Goucher tend to foster the perspective that change happens from the outside in. Then these schools risk engineering a massive transfer of talent and collective conscience into marginalized roles, while at the same time leaving the world’s institutions to be run by less socially conscious individuals. NGOs will always be a critical part of the world’s democratic systems. But they will never be in the driver’s seat.
We should not allow the world’s institutions to be left to individuals who may lack strong social awareness or even the desire for change. Little by little, the students at schools like Goucher will save the world. But they will be more effective at it by recognizing that the savviest attitude to change is often one that recognizes rather than minimizes limits.
SCOTT CARPENTER ’14