Higher education is made for students to discover or fertilize their voices as budding activists. Through education, students learn about the prolonged injustices and intentional disenfranchisement of communities throughout American history, and feel compelled to advocate against it. However, many of these injustices start with and directly affect working class people and their families; many of whom may not have access to the overpriced and glorified land of higher education.
This is why college activists and activists in general who have gone through higher education need to make a conscious effort to use more inclusive rhetoric when advocating for issues that affect people who do not have the luxury of attending and paying for a four year university. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2017 only 16.7 million Americans were enrolled in a post-secondary degree granting institution, that’s only 18% of the adult population.
Ivory tower activism prevents the communities of people who live through these issues to feel connected to people actively fighting on their behalf. Using language only found in higher education when engaging in activism furthers the disconnect between advocates and the affected communities as well as brings into question the authenticity of the activism or if it’s simply performative in nature.
In higher education students have the opportunity to major in and study things they’re passionate about. In doing so, their vocabulary on the subject expands as they develop a deeper understanding behind the sociopolitical issues which they study. However, an extensive vocabulary is not necessary in the practical application of study.
Now this does not go to say it’s not worth educating the larger community about these issues so they, too, can acquire the knowledge and weaponize it for their benefit. However, it’s possible and arguably more effective to garner support around an issue when using plain, relatable language instead of regurgitating every SAT word that comes to mind.
I, admittedly, have done this and am making a conscious effort to stop. Sometimes it feels good to weave in your activism evidence of your own personal research or study in university. But I have found that the people who would benefit the most don’t want to hear me go on about misogynoir, voter disenfranchisement, and gerrymandering. They want to know why Black women are continuously ran through the ringer in America, why their absentee voting application didn’t go through, and why their congressional representative changed and are suffering because of it.
People who are affected by these issues on a daily basis, who often times already know it’s happening, don’t want to feel like they’re being talked down to. And if they don’t know, using unfamiliar language to describe their own struggles or the struggles of others will not rally the public in the way we think it will. Only 28.9% of Americans have been exposed to some kind of higher education, not necessarily even finishing.
If we’re truly about helping disenfranchised communities and identities, we’ll meet them where they are-- not come at them using rhetoric only accessible in a $60,000 institution.
*Writer's note: I recognize the irony in my use of fancy language while writing this article about fancy language, but that is an intentional choice given my intended audience for this piece
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