writing and social change

(Written after a long coalition meeting in Washington.) A few weeks ago, a family friend who teaches in the humanities at a large state university said, “I hear you’ve been writing about how everything I do is wrong.” That’s an exaggeration. It’s true that I’m not fully comfortable with the way we organize higher education. I’m not sure that big lecture classes are satisfactory opportunities for education, nor that we select and sort our students fairly. When I observe a lack of motivation and attention among college students, I blame it on the overall educational system, not on their character or on the professor’s skills as a communicator. Thus I’d argue that institutions should change–but I would never say that it’s a waste to lecture in the liberal arts.

What sticks with me, however, is not the summary of my views, but the key verb: “writing.” Professors ask each other, “What are you writing on?” Or (meaning the same thing), “What do you work on?”

I do write. This blog may be evidence that I type too much. I’ll admit to a case of cacoethes scribendi. But I would be unsatisfied if my only way of addressing a problem were to read and write about it. I don’t think you can learn enough about a social or institutional issue by reading; you must also listen, negotiate, observe, and experiment. By the same token, writing doesn’t make things happen. Books and articles can help to change opinions. They can certainly guide activists by analyzing complex problems. But they very rarely have an impact by themselves. If I wrote about what’s wrong with education, but could never help to organize a response, I’d be frustrated.