Monday, January 16, 2006

Short term Immediate Relief (purgatory) vs. Long term Structural Change (Academia)

I've thought about the relative benefits of being part of projects that provide immediate relief and benefits to people (volunteering in soup kitchens, teaching, direct action) vs. working toward long term structural change (working in academia, politics, administration positions, etc). Despite regarding various activists as heroes (Malcolm X, Emma Goldman, Weather Underground, etc), I've always been drawn to long term projects. These long term projects almost invariably remove one from the community of people that you want to support. They are also comfortable and deceiving and often turn a radical activist into an armchair radical. And yet, a life of the short term is somewhat purgatorial. This is the connection I've just made today.
You can run the most amazing soup kitchen in the world and you will help many people and that is above reproach in every way. But for me, I just see the endless number of people that will need to be fed because of the structural elements that cause hunger. I think that people who do what I'm calling "short term" work (and I understand that working in a soup kitchen, for instance, is not necessarily accurately called "short term" - but feeding people is a shorter term goal than ending the causes of hunger) believe that it will be someone else's work to develop structural solutions to the problems that they are addressing in an immediate way. That is right. But I find this personally frustrating. I could teach for the next 25 years (and I might) but that probably won't cause an end to a racist, ableist, classist educational system that supports a social system I think should be dismantled.

I want to be clear in my unequivocal support for teachers, soup kitchens and the like and my unequivocal skepticism of politicians, academics, administrators, etc. However, I think sometimes that I want to attempt to change things so there will be no need for soup kitchens rather than spend a life spooning out food.

I think sometimes that I just want this in order to have an easier job - but I think the "easier" part of it is the possibility that things might change in part because of my work. As a teacher I believe that I contribute to change but I also know that the form of change I'm involved in is the 100 year kind in which I'll never see it myself (except in individual students - perhaps that should be enough).

So far I've taken the balanced road. Teaching is not terribly immediate and it is somewhat comfortable. I do some more immediate activities and I'm also more involved in academia. But this balance leaves less time for the rest of my life. Unless this is the rest of my life. And that's no so bad.

1 comment:

Richard said...

I would be cautious about comparing and contrasting these approaches in general, as if there is an inevitable choice between "direct relief work" or "interventions in entrenched social and political structures." True, individuals have finite resources and therefore must ultimately choose. However, "the world", "the society", and "the public at large" can and will choose to take up both types of work, and the population cannot really afford one without the other. While we inevitably choose what we will do as individuals, the individual is never enough under either schema... As a society, we must not accept such a choice at all. I think you would agree anyway, but I thought it worth clarifying. I enjoyed the read... Rich