Thoughts on changing the world

From the moment we set foot on Duke’s campus, we are told that we are the next generation of great minds. We are exceptionally inventive thinkers who carry ideas for start-ups and technological innovations that will solve climate change, world hunger and social injustice. 

In President Vincent Price’s new Strategic Framework that will guide Duke’s second century, the first priority reads, “Duke will empower the brightest and boldest thinkers to solve the world’s most pressing challenges.The discoveries and advances that will improve lives begin with attracting the very best people.” The word “innovation” jumps out from almost every paragraph: “By partnering with faculty and students to support research into innovative learning… Learning Innovation is putting Duke at the forefront of pedagogical innovation.” 

Duke’s programs reflect this obsession with innovation and market-oriented solutions to global challenges. The Innovation and Entrepreneurship certificate and Markets and Management certificates are among the most popular and well-funded. As a first year, I was excited to pursue a certificate in Civic Engagement and Social Change, only to find out that the year before me was the last class eligible to enroll. The Marxism & Society certificate was discontinued in 2019. Now, the Latino/a Studies in the Global South (LSGS) certificate is undergoing a “review” by Duke’s administration which has expressed some desire to cut costs associated with the program, as confirmed by LSGS Program Director Claudia Milian.  

These are programs that teach students to think critically about the root of society’s troubles. Professor Michael Hardt, who still teaches the capstone course for Marxism and Society, described the value of the certificate not as “radical-left indoctrination”—as critics claimed—but as “providing a perspective for students to engage with critically.” In other words, students learn how to examine the accomplishments of capitalism as well as its faults, inquiring whether something different and better could grow out of it. I think that questioning the fabric of our social and economic institutions, and wondering if a more just and equitable possibility exists, is bold thinking at its finest. 

Through its priorities and programs, Duke is telling us that being an innovator is the only way to be a bold thinker. But the pressing issues of our time will not be fixed by another innovation or start-up alone. The future will also need leaders that have skills in political mobilization, civic empowerment and social cooperation to brazenly challenge the power structures that got us into this mess in the first place. 

In Duke faculty Eric Mlyn’s article, “Innovation Alone Won’t Fix Social Problems”, he and Amanda Moore McBride write, “The real challenge is in doing, not just thinking up.” 

In the case of the climate crisis, numerous scientists have emphasized that although technological innovations are important, we cannot keep waiting around for the next solution because there is simply not enough time before the point of no return. We already have cheap decarbonization tools and access to solar energy. What we need now is for politicians and businesses to use these technologies at a level that actually puts a dent in emissions. These solutions for real change take sacrifice, reorganization of priorities and hierarchies, and rethinking of our current institutions. And the next global leaders need to have the skills to garner support for these kinds of reforms and set them in motion. We will need to be bold, but not in the way Duke imagines. 

Just and equitable change takes sacrifice through social and political action. As Anand Giridharadas writes in New York Times Bestseller “Winners Take All,” we are told that we can change the world through the market; we just need to invest in the right innovations. We like to think we can skip the whole government part. But real change happens when we reform the systems that we all share in common. Not everything can be a win-win; the best and the brightest cannot change the world and still profit from the status quo that produced the problem. 

Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation, boldly questioned the primary principles of market-based change, when he asked, “What underlying forces drive the very inequality whose manifestations we seek to ameliorate?” This is the question that programs like Marxism and Society and Civic Engagement and Social Change ask their students to consider. If Duke is to produce the next generation of bold thinkers, it can’t only emphasize the creation of solutions. It must also teach us to interrogate the root causes of societal problems, for if those were addressed, we might not need apps and inventions to treat the symptoms. It needs to encourage its students to be bold enough to challenge the status quo, even if it means that someone’s profits might be cut in the process. As Duke heads into the centennial, we must think about what kind of bold thinking we value, and how programs, funding, and opportunities reflect those priorities. Yes, we need to be bright enough to create good. But we also need to be bold enough to challenge evil. 

Special thanks to Eric Mlyn, whose Civic Engagement and Social Change class taught me to think about the world differently.

Pilar Kelly is a Trinity junior. Her column typically runs on alternating Tuesdays.

Pilar Kelly

Pilar Kelly is a Trinity junior and an opinion columnist for The Chronicle's 118th volume.


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