'Navel-gazing’, ‘ivory tower’, ‘book smart but not street smart’, ‘pompous pseudo-intellectual’ – all these epithets, while insulting, point to a common perception that academics and university students are often disconnected from ‘The Real World.’ Indeed, higher education institutions can often seem like privileged enclaves, isolated from the daily struggle for existence that so much of the world faces.
While I was in college, following summers in Kenya, Nicaragua and the Philippines, I grew increasingly frustrated by how many of my classes lacked relevance or insight into the shocking levels of poverty I had observed. I couldn’t wait to graduate and immerse myself in the world of international humanitarian and development NGOs.
However, after a couple years working in that sector, I realized how often my work often lacked a strong foundation in rigorous social analysis. So many development programs were rooted in shoddy thinking, conventional wisdom and hostility to critical reflection. I began to appreciate my need for further academic training and so returned to graduate school.
This week I finally completed my PhD, which researched foreign aid programs for clearing landmines. I have realized that while I studied very real social problems, I have, through four and a half years of isolation in the academy, become distant from the very people who are trying to effect change in the world.
As a result, I have tried to think of many of the possible ways I have seen academics contributing to the struggle against social problems, bridging that gap between the research seminar and the street:
1) Consciousness raising in the classroom – This the most obvious place to start for many academics. A teacher has a captive audience and can contribute to changing social attitudes through making syllabi relevant to the crucial issues facing the globe, such as poverty, conflict, environmental destruction and social exclusion.
2) Organizing conferences, seminars and teach-ins – Without even leaving campus, academics can reach out beyond the classroom to raise the consciousness of staff and students. These can draw upon the existing expertise of resident academics or be supplemented by inviting guest speakers. On poverty and development issues, for instance, they could invite staff from Outreach International to share about their experiences and work.
3) Conducting and publishing research into social problems and policy options – Academics can consider how their research agendas can contribute to a better understanding of social problems and/or the effectiveness of various methods used to address them.
4) Mentoring student activist organizations – Students often have a great deal of energy and drive to engage with the world. For instance, students at Graceland University have raised thousands of dollars for Outreach International. However, these student groups can still benefit from the expertise, experience and encouragement of academics.
5) Examining ways the university can become more socially responsible – Often the world’s problems are closer to home than one might think. Academics can investigate whether endowment funds are invested in arms manufacturing, whether service staff are paid a living wage, the size of the institution’s carbon footprint, the effectiveness of campus recycling or the existence of racism, sexism and homophobia on campus.
6) Leading study tours and exchange programs – Consciousness-raising activities are often far more effective if they occur in-situ, where students can observe the reality of poverty and social issues first hand and enter into dialogue with the people most affected. For instance, they could assist with Graceland University’s winter term site visit to Outreach International’s programs in Nicaragua.
7) Teaching in or building partnerships with developing world universities – Many such institutions are desperately lacking sufficient academic staff, research collaborators, lab equipment and library books. Academics can arrange visiting scholar positions either individually or through programs like the Fulbright or Peace Corps. Such an assignment can then be a springboard for further institutional collaboration.
8) Tutoring – Academics can reach out to disadvantaged populations in the community around them by tutoring in prisons, adult education programs and after-school clubs. For instance, they can offer help with writing, research methods, English as a Foreign Language and study skills.
9) Providing consultancy, training and analysis – Many organizations attempting to address social problems – like NGOs, local government and socially responsible business – welcome input from people who have the time to think critically about their work.
10) Political advocacy and activism in the public arena – Through public speeches, media articles, blogging, calling elected officials and attending demonstrations, academics can use the credibility lent by their expertise and titles to help persuade leaders and the public to act on crucial issues. One can read about ideas, resources and up-to-date action alerts right here on Sustainable Good.