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Please don’t change the world.


AROUND THE INSTITUTION posters have gone up exhorting the young folk to become global activists. “Change Your World,” says one of them. “You must be the change you want to see in the world,” says another (good old Gandhi). “Let us pick up our books and our pens, they are the most powerful weapons,” comes the voice of Malala Yousafzi. In the communal dining area the words of Saint Mandela are printed on the wall up high: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

As a now aged man who has seen and endured the results of people wanting to change the damn world — purportedly for the better and with our interests at heart, of course — I wholeheartedly disagree with this advice. I can accept the second of those quotations to some extent because it places the emphasis on the individual changing him or herself, which in general is the best approach. It reminds me of the line from Rilke’s poem, “Archaic Torso of Apollo”, “You must change your life” (“Du mußt dein Leben ändern”), though I hardly think the designers of the poster had this in mind. Even so, given the fact the quotation is from Gandhi and the general tenor of the campaign verges on full scale Social Justice Warriorness, it still makes me uneasy. It doesn’t take much from being the change to compelling others to change.

It’s almost impossible to criticise Ms Yousafzi. Who wants to be seen having a go at a young woman who survived being shot in the head by the Taliban and won the Nobel Prize? I don’t. But Ms Yousafzai also said in her speech: “One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world. Education is the only solution,” which is sometimes the case. It is often the case, though, that one bullet or bomb can do the same. Or an army. And I’m not as convinced as she is by the idea that education can eradicate the violence in the world, including the terrorism that propelled the bullet into her brain — inspired, let us not forget, by a book.

I object to the idea of weaponising education. I think it’s dangerous and mendacious.

Unlike Ms Yousfzai, Nelson Mandela is comfortably dead and safely ensainted so I have no qualms in tilting at him. I object to the idea of weaponising education. I think it’s dangerous and mendacious. Weapons are for killing and destroying, and surely we should be thinking of education as a tool for creation. Mandela’s view is just another form of instrumentalism, as crude in its way as the instrumentalism of the value for money merchants who only see education as worthwhile if it generates cash for the economy. In this case we all know that the change being proposed is one of a leftward tilt politically, one that will require the expansion of state power and the enforcement of whatever happens to be the current conformity.

Interesting, isn’t it, that two of the people quoted were political activists, Gandhi and Mandela, the latter being convicted and imprisoned for terrorism? And Yousafzai is supposedly a socialist or Marxist, which is not a good omen. Perhaps it is because find inspiring quotations from people who have made real change possible in spheres outside the political, in medicine, science, technology, the arts. Or perhaps it is because their exhortation to change the world is driven purely by an ideology of power. It is noticeable that “change” is always amorphous and unspecified. You can pour any obsession, neurosis or delusion into it and find justification.

What happened to the idea of education as a means to developing character, or being able to evaluate information and make independent, informed decisions? About making a contribution to the world rather than twisting it to fit with a set of fashionable dogmas in order to eradicate a hit list of equally fashionable “problems”?

Well, that’s all apparently old hat. What we are supposed to want now is over-credentialled youngsters determined to change a world of which they have little knowledge or understanding. Whatever area they channel their activism into — race, gender, religion, economics — it will be thoroughly myopic and blinkered, given that much of it will be shaped by what their lecturers have been feeding them.

Far better to advise young people to get their own lives in order before considering going on crusades to change those of others. Far better to get them to understand that education reveals the complexity of the world, which is not amenable to the simplistic quick fixes suggested by slogans. Being all for change is easy. Negotiating the world as it is, is hard.

suxcoverCurrente Calamo columnist, poet, writer and lecturer Michael Blackburn lives in Lincolnshire . From 2005–2008 he was the Royal Literary Fund fellow at the University of Lincoln where he now teaches English Literature and Creative Writing. His poetry has appeared in numerous publications and anthologies over the years, including Being Alive (Bloodaxe) and Something Happens, Sometimes Here (Five Leaves Press). His most recent collection is Spyglass Over The Lagoon. A selection of his Fortnightly Currente Calamo columns, Sucks To Your Revolution: Annoying The Politically Correct (US), is available as a Kindle ebook.

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