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Paul Rogat Loeb: 'You can't be afraid to take on the challenges'

GREENVILLE, N.C.   (Feb. 24, 2011)   —   In his tours of college campuses, author and activist Paul Rogat Loeb has observed that many students lack an understanding of how social change occurs. They know, for instance, that Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of the bus, but they don’t know about the years of behind-the-scenes work that precipitated the Montgomery bus boycott.

Educators have a unique responsibility to change that, Loeb argued Wednesday at the 8th annual ECU Conference on Service-Learning. Loeb, who has lectured to 400 colleges around the country, has published five books, including the “Soul of a Citizen,” which has more than 100,000 copies in print. An updated edition was published in April.

Loeb spoke with ECU News Services about the role of universities in social change and how professors can develop civically engaged students.

Do you feel like the role of colleges in creating social and cultural change is shifting?

Loeb: I think we’ve got different challenges now. We have a really hard challenge to think about how to create an American economy again. Now we’re sending our jobs overseas. People didn’t have that 35 years ago. We have to deal with issues like climate change. None of us really want to think about them, but they’re affecting agriculture, they’re affecting health, they’re affecting habitats. There are different challenges. Students are more stressed. They’re working more hours at outside jobs. I’d say that definitely the role is changing. You can’t be afraid to take on the challenges. Not everybody’s going to agree on the same solutions, and that’s a good thing. You’ll be debating them, but you don’t want to shy away from the challenges. That’s important.

You mentioned students working more hours. With students leaving school with unprecedented amount of debt and often-tenuous job outlooks, how do you impress upon them the importance of civic engagement?

Decisions are being made that affect them. I look at student federal financial aid — it’s gone through major changes about five times in the last five years. It’s increased; it’s decreased. It’s these things that affect every student around. Most students don’t even know these debates and decisions are even happening. And so if they want a good outcome, if they feel like they shouldn’t be burdened with debt, they’ve got to organize and make the case for why they shouldn’t be burdened with debt or not burdened as much with debt. Who better to make the case than the student? They have to learn to tell their stories. We’ve got to teach them to tell their stories. Again, I’m not saying that we’re all necessarily going to agree. We’re not going to all agree, but being able to speak up for what you believe and to be able to feel like your voice could matter. That’s really important and I don’t think we do that enough.

In your talk today, you mentioned the pull of instant gratification. How do educators help students see the long view?

We all have such impulses. Nonetheless, I think that when students actually get involved with something that actually has some deeper meaning, they like it. Do you want to be able to have a chance to be part of something that actually could really matter in somebody’s life? Yeah, you do. That’s why I tell the story of this woman [at Virginia Tech] who was a self-described drunken party girl who basically helped transform this 25,000-student campus and is now running a campus program. That campus’ environmental impact is way lower as a result of the thing she’s doing and it’s saving money on a bunch of stuff. All sorts of good outcomes have occurred because she recognized that she could be something other than a drunken party girl. She said, “Institutions change, and people change and I can do both.”

Younger people can be really energized by national politics yet know nothing about their local city council, where important decisions are made and where many politicians, good and bad ones, get their start. How can educators get their students engaged in local issues?

I think by helping them understand the kinds of things [local governments] affect. Get them to go down to a meeting, actually listen to this stuff get debated. These are human beings making choices that are going to affect people. I think that’s really important. I remember knocking on doors in a governor’s race and getting four people to vote. They’d forgotten it was Election Day and they needed a ride to the polls. It wasn’t a result of my eloquence, but just because I showed up. Then my candidate won by 430 votes. So you can definitely affect things on that level, and I was really glad I turned out that day. A few hundred people less and I would’ve gotten a different governor. On the other hand, on a local level there’s just no question about it: It’s the rule rather than the exception that a few hundred votes can make a difference in a city council race in a not-so-huge town. The impact, potentially, is much more accessible.

Why value academic complexity over academic neutrality?

Neutrality makes it sounds as if you never have a point of view on anything. I think you’ve got to be humble in your point of view — you’ve got to recognize that other people may have different points of view. But if you never put forth your views on things that you care about most, how are students going to know that there are models out there of people who care?

If you’re a professor of course you have to be very mindful of the potential for intimidation and really lean over backwards to nurture your students if they happen to disagree with you. To me, I’d much rather have a campus where people are passionately and civically arguing out strongly held views on different sides of issues than one where people are sort of silent on anything that might be controversial.

At Kennesaw State University, which was using “Soul of a Citizen,” students were doing different projects, everything from a literacy project to a gay and lesbian support ally group to an initiative to carry guns on campus. My response was, I would happen not to be on that side of the issue, but I still think having students getting involved in lots of different issues is a good thing, whether I happen to agree with them or not.

— Karen Shugart