This year our college selected a common theme, "Leadership,” and as part of that theme we assigned all our freshmen seminar students to read Soul of a Citizen by Paul Loeb. Since my freshman seminar is “The Culture of Food,” we discussed parent groups advocating school lunch reform, the early food coops, food pantries, and animal rights groups. Many of my students are horrified by the treatment of animals in slaughterhouses that Schlosser documents in Fast Food Nation. Most of them are aware of the rising rates of obesity and diabetes within their generation. Yet when it comes to changing their own eating habits, let alone working for social change around the issues of malnutrition, food scarcity, or the treatment of animals, they seem unable to imagine change.
Loeb's book is filled with examples of ordinary people who surprise themselves by becoming activists for a range of causes. In his talk at our university and in his book, he argues against the myths of activism: that an activist must know everything about the topic, the she must be a saint, and that he works alone. Loeb cites the example of Civil Rights heroine Rosa Parks: most students know her as a woman who suddenly decided she was tired and so sat in the front of the bus one day. Missing from public knowledge is Parks’ long involvement with the NAACP; in fact, she had been trained in the Highland Folk School previous to the bus boycott. By simplifying Parks’ story, we create a history in which heroines and activists are miraculous beings who spring full-formed into public life, and we fail to recognize the importance of social movements, of working collectively.
Yet it struck me, at our faculty discussion with Paul Loeb, that asking students to be more engaged in community activism, in changing the world in any way, is somewhat hypocritical when we faculty seem just as immersed in our own lives. In this time of budget crises, salary freezes, and even the demolition of entire programs, it's easy to focus on just our own survival, or that of our department, or our family. Academic life rewards individual achievement and the time demands on most of us make it difficult to do much else. What kind of leadership are we giving students when we live in a culture of anxious workaholism? How do we model active political engagement when finishing a scholarly article seems more important than working on the current election?