“How should students engage and contribute?”


A few thoughts in response to this question, posed during a lecture on climate change at the American University, Washington, DC.

Earlier post on the lecture:  Who is threatened by climate science?

[Edited slightly for posting.]

I’ve come to a way of answering this question that is not a ‘one size fits all’ response. Each of you has this challenge, of finding a path where you’re doing something that you love and that is meaningful to you, that you’re really good at, that makes a contribution that the world needs, and that you can support yourself doing. Most people never solve that problem – maybe you get 2 out of 4.  But clearly you have different paths of getting there.

You have to develop yourselves as citizens, so that whatever expertise you’re applying is not applied narrowly, or just sold automatically to the highest bidder.  Your role as citizens is more than just deciding whom to vote for – that usually isn’t too hard, given whatever bias you bring to it. It’s about being a citizen with your whole self.

Where is your energy? What do you know? What do you need to learn? What are you good at? What are your skill sets? What organizations are you in? Can you find organizations and actions to support? What institutional context do you find yourself in? What jurisdiction do you have? What are you in a position to do? What is your network? What are your values, what’s important to you?

And from there, be creative about figuring out how you fit in. I think this problem we’ve been talking about is going to require action on a wide front among a very wide range of people, bringing a lot of ideas and skills and a lot of energy to it.

I can’t just recommend that you do ‘X’ – engage in a particular activity, support a particular group. It’s more like, who are you? You figure out what you need to do, what your individual contribution is. But I think you’ll find that you have a lot of opportunities to engage, if you seek them out.

Sometimes it calls on you to do something that’s not the path of least resistance. You may have to decide whether to look the other way, if you get into a situation where you’re under leadership or authority that you don’t feel represented by, or that you believe is violating your values.  I worked in government for a long time, and when you do that you typically trade your public freedom of speech to a certain extent for inside influence. That’s great if you feel represented by whom you’re working under, that they’re speaking and acting in accord with your values, even if you don’t agree with them on every action they take. But when you’re in a situation when your values clash with the authority you’re under, then you’re confronted with the problem of whether to go along with that or whether to push back on it. And if so, how?

So it’s a long and complex and winding road that each of us has in seeking to engage creatively and contribute meaningfully as citizens. But I think you do have opportunities.

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