Our Duty to Intellectual Activism
Written for the Students of Cambridge, by a student of Cambridge.
There was a fire in us, once. Students faced down governments, proposed political systems and gave the oppressed a platform that forced others to take note. We are now more concerned with building ourselves, our brand and our CV, knowing full well there is no practical value in learning to think about the world around us and how to improve it. If we had any energy left, that passion is reduced to mumbled cries of overpriced hall chips and reading weeks.
We have all had that unsettling feeling. That sense of injustice, of blatant inefficiency. That brief moment in ourselves, when we stood for something. In a sense, many of us came here on a lie. We told ourselves to prepare to be at the forefront of great things. “I thought I would be inspired”, says Jo, a second year economist, “I thought I would be building things with people I found here.”
What is at stake is not just the wasting of our potential, but also our future. We are home to the future leaders of the private and public world. Where is that arrogance in students to look to themselves to shape society? I fear the world of students who don’t think, speakers who don’t talk and leaders who don’t lead.
Our generation will face some of the greatest challenges and opportunities the world has ever seen. Global health. Artificial intelligence. Refugees. Climate change. Drones. The world is changing; where are the students of Cambridge to be found? Will some of the world’s brightest students sit and watch the world go by? If there was ever a time for us to start tackling these issues in an intelligent and coherent manner, our brief time in this institution is it.
Intellectual activism is not simply about protesting or locking down an auditorium. It is about throwing ourselves to figuring out intelligent and practical solutions to the problems around us. Student activism should not be about solving everything at once, but mapping out what practical change can look like. For all her flaws, presidential candidate Mrs. Clinton stood firm on this point when facing down protests from the Black Lives Movement. She asks them what is their proposal and their plan for the country. They talk about their impact on the country’s psyche and ask her if their presence has changed her heart. To that, she responds:
“I don’t believe you change hearts,” Mrs. Clinton says, summarizing her basic view of social policy movements. “I believe you change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate.”
I like the idea that there is an untapped power in gathering all of us here in this tiny city. We are not just a demographic to be riled up by the parties-to-be on the next hot-button issue. We are a scholarly collective, a synergetic mass of pure brainpower that really has not been used to do much other than fill up pieces of Tripos papers. Of all places, this should not be expected from Cambridge. We are, all of us, always surrounded by the greatness that is etched into the very halls we live in. If we do not even try to give a thought about these issues, who will?
Students of Cambridge, we have an intellectual duty to the world. There is so much we could do here, so many people we might accidentally inspire. I, you, we are here for the intellectual journey. Talk about what you have read. Ask questions. Join discussions. To quote Stephen Hawking, Fellow of Gonville & Caius, “Try to make sense of what you see and about what makes the universe exist. Be curious.”