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From agonism to action

Fall/Winter 2013 | By Vincent M. Smith (Ph.D. ’11)

A few months ago, one of my students gave a class presentation on micro-lending as part of a unit on community development. In his presentation, he brought us to his personal online lending page with a nonprofit micro-lending agency called Kiva. 

He had placed $1,500 in his account and announced that he would donate $50 on behalf of every student in the class. He preset the criteria to select from any female-owned business in Africa. he then asked students to email him by Friday with the name of the individual to whom he should provide a loan. 

Vincent Smith
Alumnus Vincent Smith (Ph.D.
Environment and Resources '11).

On Friday, I called the student and asked him how the donations were going. He reluctantly reported that not a single student had bothered to select a recipient. He remarked that this was the third time he had attempted to solicit individuals to help him loan out his own money without a single taker. 

Though both the student and I had spoken in class on the benefits of micro-lending, we were collectively unable to motivate a single student to give away money to a good cause, even when the money was provided by another. I felt terrible. 

Though I was heartbroken by the lack of action, I was not really surprised. Action is hard to come by on the college campus. We like to talk, we are excellent at criticism, but when it comes to doing something – even something as simple as giving away someone else’s money – we simply fail to act. 

If we look exclusively at the college student, this lack of action manifests itself in low voter turnout, dwindling participation in community-based service, and even a decrease in participation in university-sponsored social organizations. However, our focus must be on more than just the students. 

I often hear the apparent lack of social and political action in the United States today framed as an epidemic of apathy among young people. Certainly, research suggests there has been a shift over time in how individuals and communities engage, but is it really the rising generation that deserves all the blame? 

In my mind, the sort of action that my student had hoped for, and the sort of action that society requires of us, does not just emerge. It must be taught and it is best taught by example. In the context of the college campus, I would suggest we need faculty and staff committed to more than just conversation, criticism, cynicism and complaint. We need college campuses steeped in a tradition of charity, sacrifice, hard work, optimism and perseverance. 

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It is not enough to tell our students stories of our past work and our past efforts. They need examples today! It is not enough to tell our students we know what is right. They need to see us creating a world that is right and they need to be invited to join us. 

My students – even those who chose not to act when given the opportunity – describe themselves as the sort of people who do good things and who are willing to work hard to create a better world. So why didn’t they act? I spent a few weeks asking students. Their responses were telling. 

First, they did not believe the scenario was real. They thought the student was speaking in hypotheticals. They believed the pictures they had seen were of people that really needed help, but they did not believe their action was going to result in that individual receiving a loan. One student even remarked, “I am tired of exercises like this; I want to actually help people.” 

Second, many of the students commented that they did not believe they could really make a difference through a $50 loan. They felt powerless to do good because they felt any contribution they would make would be too small. Many of these students used some version of the phrase, “I am just a college student.” 

That qualifying statement, “just,” is a vicious trap. It doesn’t matter if the respondent is “just” a college student or “just” an employee or “just” a kid. If we as professors, employers, parents and co-workers do not take our young friends aside and explain to them that they are powerful, meaningful and responsible, they will fail and we will have failed. 

As a result of this experience I am committed to being a better citizen, to demonstrating what action is required of such citizenship, and then inviting my students and my children to join me as I act. If I am the sort of person who seeks to do good throughout the day, who speaks kindly of my spouse, who expresses concern for my neighbor, and who finds meaningful ways to act, then my job as a professor becomes much easier. 

I need only invite my students to learn what is needed to act and then ask them to join me as I demonstrate appropriate action. They won’t leave college wondering whether they will ever do good in the world. They will know that they can do good in the world, because they already have made a difference. 

Vincent Smith, Ph.D. Environment and Resources '11, is an assistant professor of environmental studies and sociology at Southern Oregon University, where he directs the university’s Center for Sustainability and serves as coordinator of the learning community Green House. Smith is also co-owner of the Silent Springs natural living community and marketplace ( 

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