Teach Your Students to Be Builders, Not Critics

Eboo Patel calls on college educators to teach students how to build a better social order, not merely criticize the existing one.

September 6, 2022
An illustration of two construction workers against a yellow background. One holds blueprints; the other points into the distance.
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As a new group of students arrives on our campuses, eager to put their ideals into action, here is my plea to those educators who will shape their lives and careers: teach your students to be builders, not critics.

Do not direct their precious energy mainly toward protesting bad things out of existence. Do not suggest to them that the best use of their talents is telling other people what they are doing wrong. Do not tell them that their highest hope is to struggle against corrupt power.

Highlight to them all the ways that they are already powerful, and emphasize that their purpose should be to increase their power and use it responsibly. Teach them the skills and knowledge to defeat the things they do not love by building the things they do.

After all, the goal of social change is not a more ferocious revolution. It is a more beautiful social order.

Since the rise of Donald Trump, progressive activism has had far too much focus on righteous struggles against corrupt power and far too little on responsible leadership of better institutions. The theory of change goes something like this: if you dismantle the current system with edgy critique and explosive rage, a better one will magically appear in its place and operate itself.

But destroying the current order does not lead to paradise. It leads to chaos.

Ryan Grim’s widely read article in The Intercept “Elephant in the Zoom” details how this has played out in the professional social change sector. A critical mass of recent college graduates has brought a resistance mind-set into the nonprofit organizations that employ them and created debilitating disruptions in major institutions like the American Civil Liberties Union, the Sierra Club and the Guttmacher Institute. Grim does not mince words when he sums up his extensive reporting, writing that “the progressive advocacy space” has “more or less, effectively ceased to function” and “seen wrenching and debilitating turmoil in the past couple years.”

Who supplied the conceptual frameworks and charged language being used to wound not so much overt regimes of patriarchy and racism (remember, Trump is still the kingmaker in the Republican Party), but, as Grim’s article discusses, the human beings trying to do the good work of protecting the environment and empowering the marginalized?

Very often, it is educators on college campuses.

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I have a personal story of this.

I was initiated into activism by strident voices during my undergraduate years at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the early 1990s, an activist era that feels much like our own times. I remember a classroom discussion with a radical professor who encouraged resistance to the regime in every way possible. “What was the endgame?” one student asked.

“When we raise our voices in opposition, we are pushing against the system,” he responded. “And one day, it will bend so far that it will break.”

I nodded my head in pious agreement. At the time it sounded so romantic. We enlightened few could take down an oppressive system with our brilliant critique and forceful protest.

What social order might replace the system we would so cheerfully destroy? There was no discussion of that.

I brought the critique/resist/dismantle approach to an interfaith conference in the late 1990s. It was two years after I graduated from college, and I had gone to the event looking for the urgent activism of faith-based social change agents like Bayard Rustin, Pauli Murray, Malcolm X and Mahatma Gandhi. What I found was old white male theologians talking.

The line that went through my head as I sat through one especially boring panel was an Audre Lorde quote I had read in college: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” I decided I could no longer play by the same polite rules as everyone else at the event. I did what I was taught as an undergraduate: I stood up, raised my fist and called people out.

Where was the sense of urgency? I shouted. Where was the vanguard energy? Where were the young people? Where was the true diversity?

People turned to stare. A few clapped. Mission accomplished, I thought to myself.

After the session ended and the commotion died down, an Indigenous Mayan activist named Yoland Trevino approached me and said something along the lines of: that vision that you just articulated, of an interfaith initiative that centers young people, focuses on social action and involves a wider diversity than what is present here—that’s powerful. You should build that.

It made so much sense when she put it that simply. My standard tone when I was in activist mode was a mixture of flippancy and scorn, a cocktail that basically conveyed, “You idiots in charge couldn’t find a tree if you were looking at a forest.”

Something in what Yoland said shocked me into a realization: I could continue on the path of loudly opposing everything I thought was bad, or I could put my energies into building my definition of good.

It was at that point that I realized how extensive my skills were in the former, and how much I had to learn to accomplish the latter.

The good news is that the knowledge base is not hard to learn, and the skills can in fact be acquired. There is a whole world of social change that is characterized by the outstretched hand rather than the raised fist, that seeks to change things by building better institutions rather than shouting down existing systems.

In fact, I had been introduced to some of it in college. Unfortunately, my undergraduate professors who highlighted the examples of constructive builders like Jane Addams and Muhammad Yunus had a hard time being heard above the educators emphasizing critique.

Critics are important. Social change doesn’t happen unless there are voices creating dissatisfaction with the status quo.

But right now, we have enough critics. What we need are more builders, more people who know how to create concrete instantiations of a fair, just and inclusive social order.

To achieve that, we need more college educators who are teaching students how to be architects of a better system, not arsonists of the current one.

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Eboo Patel is the founder and president of Interfaith America (formerly Interfaith Youth Core). His most recent book is We Need to Build: Field Notes for Diverse Democracy (Penguin Random House).

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