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The Forgotten Scholar

Opinion | December 10, 2012

My courses at university have taught me that colonialism and capitalism institutionalized patriarchy, racism, militarism, and unrelenting exploitation of the environment in Western civilization in a tireless pursuit of wealth and progress. The more I learn in college, the more pessimistic my outlook is towards my government and my country. I’m a 20 year-old being introduced to problems on a grand societal scale—how am I supposed to have any way of changing them?

I often tell myself that these problems are for someone with power—someone like the president. President Obama came into office promising to modify a system that propagated rich elites’ exploitation of the middle and poor classes and the US policy of dictating other nations’ affairs. But four years later, Guantanamo Bay has yet to be closed, unmanned drone strikes across the Middle East have risen dramatically, and the US still relies on fossil fuels for its energy supply—not to mention the continuing failed War on Drugs and the doubling of border patrol along Mexico border under the Obama administration. If President Obama, hailed as one of the most progressive presidents in decades , struggles and consistently falls short on his promises for “change,” what hope do I, as a college student, have of making any impact on society? Sometimes I fear that ignorance is truly bliss, and the knowledge that I learn about our society is an unsolvable curse.

Today, college students are too willing to accept complacency and retreat from the problems plaguing society. Too often, they prefer to cautiously peer down on the raging storms below from the safe chambers of their ivory tower, distancing themselves from the problems they research. Intellectuals bury themselves in a litany of dense texts and difficult terminology, creating a fundamental disconnect between them and the rest of society. Comfortable and complacent in their nice universities, academics are all-too-often self-serving and useful only to the lucky few who attend college. Have we forgotten the values of the scholars that actively worked to shape the American conscience?

Throughout American history, a plethora of motivated scholars have worked tooth and nail for change. Benjamin Franklin’s academic endeavors blossomed into practical inventions for fellow Americans. He discovered electricity, invented the stove as well as bifocals, and even helped write the US Constitution. David Walker, an African American born as a free man in 1796, devoted himself to his studies and distributed his radical text on abolition, titled “Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World,” to as many slaves as possible. In response, Southern white men put a price on his head—as Walker expected would happen—and a year after the “Appeal” was written, he was assassinated. Henry David Thoreau refused to pay the poll-tax to the government that supported slavery and forcibly stole over a half-million square miles of territory in the Mexican-American War of 1846.

Knowledge and action need to be inseparable sides of the same coin. Without applying knowledge to action and vice versa, progressive change is impossible. This does not mean every one of us, as students, needs to become the leader of an activist movement; it means finding the issues we care about and bringing our talents to those issues. Ralph Waldo Emerson, an extremely influential American intellectual in the 1800s, applied his intellectual gift as a writer and orator to the issues of slavery, Native American rights, and women’s suffrage. He used his talents to travel around the US giving lectures to any who cared to listen. He organized and gathered intellectuals around Boston to start the Transcendental Club—a club of progressive thinkers dedicated to the circulation of ideas through publications like The Dial. Emerson’s strategy worked—by dedicating his writings and lectures to the issues he cared about, his life’s work was able to change the way Americans thought about their own society.

It’s important to remember, though, that as college students and intellectuals, we have limitations. While Emerson decried slavery, for instance, he could never speak from the perspective of a slave. He understood the injustice of slavery, but it was only enslaved African Americans themselves who could understand the anger, the frustration, and the oppression that slavery caused. David Walker’s “Appeal,” for example, explodes with anger, fury, justice, and religious fervor. Unlike Emerson, for Walker, there is no way to talk about slavery calmly as an African American. “But when I reflect that God is just,” Walker insists, “and that millions of my wretched brethren would meet death with glory—yea, more, would plunge into the very mouths of cannons and be torn into particles as minute as the atoms which compose the elements of the earth, in preference to a mean submission to the lash of tyrants, I am with streaming eyes, compelled to shrink back into nothingness before my Maker, and exclaim again, thy will be done, O Lord God Almighty.” Emerson calmly urges for abolition, while Walker demands violence against 300 years of institutionalized slavery, theft, rape, and murder. This divide between Emerson and Walker is analogous to the divide between the privileged intellectual and the common man.

We undeniably have immense privileges as Tufts students. However, these privileges also give us limitations . Action alone is insufficient; action must include engaging with the world around us. And engaging takes courage. “Free should the scholar be,—free and brave,” Emerson declared. “Brave; for fear is a thing which a scholar by his very function puts behind him.” As students, we need to find the courage to be brave in the same way as Emerson and David Walker, taking a step outside our comfort zone and interacting with the various communities to which we belong. For Tufts’ students, this means engaging with the larger Tufts’ community, whether it’s by pursuing topics further with professors in their office hours, attending guest lectures, writing for a publication like the Observer, or being active in a club on campus. It means talking to other classmates to see what they’ve done, what issues they’re researching, and how it applies to our own courses.

However, our responsibilities do not end there. If we never connect our experiences at Tufts to other communities, then our education becomes self-serving and exclusionary. A basic way to have an impact outside of Tufts is to converse about the topics you learn about with your family members and friends from back home. Another option that is becoming increasingly popular is the Internet. Social network sites like Facebook offer rapid communication to an unprecedentedly large audience. A great example of a progressive site is kickstarter.com, a funding platform for creative projects which has given over $350 million to more than 2.5 million people around the world. Websites such as Kickstarter allow people to craft their own projects and share it with the online community.

The most courageous of actions, however, is reaching out and interacting with other communities in person. We should volunteer at an inner-city school in Boston, mentor a child whose parents are busy at work through the after-school program TAS.T.E., or talk to street artists in Harvard as they publicize their craft. Only then will we start to gain a better understanding of the community around us. Tufts is so close to Boston, but too often we remain perched on our hill, inwardly focused on our collegiate experience.

We must descend from our hill and return to the community around us. As students, we have the responsibility to act on the knowledge we learn in our courses in a way that engages with the larger community around us. The challenge of intellectualism is to translate what we learn into something applicable for our society. American scholars throughout history accepted this challenge and worked tirelessly to achieve change. It’s time that we, as Tufts’ students, accept the mantle of responsibility and become American scholars in the way intellectuals like Emerson intended. Otherwise, Tufts will never be a city on the hill that all eyes look towards. It will remain a withdrawn tower, peering down on the rest of world but never interacting with it, cautiously maintaining a safe distance from the problems we’re trying to solve without ever engaging the problems head-on.