University shows you just how different the world can be

By now, week two of university life is well under way. You are probably having to scurry across campus desperately trying to make your classes, attempting to fit in at the various new societies you may be a part of, and generally trying to do a bit more than simply survive. As the weeks go by, however, you will realise that university is much more than a case of getting a degree. It is a time of recognising significant change, and realising just how different the world around you could easily be.

Higher education is not the mass delivery of knowledge that secondary school may have felt like. At its best, university is an in-depth explanation for why the world is a particular way. You may be shown how the Old Testament arguably sowed the seeds for contemporary gender inequality, or you can be enlightened on how mathematic formulae are central to the organisation of the solar system. Either way, what makes the world tick becomes a little clearer with every passing contact hour. As a consequence of this, you begin to think, almost without prompting, how things could be done differently.

The world is not simply the sum of human action. Instead, a series of embedded social and cultural processes that differ across the globe gel together to create a world that – in certain sects – actively promotes inequality and favours certain groups of people over others. The very fact that you are at university means that you have been affected by these processes. Attending higher education is a privilege. This in turn affects what people expect of you, their first impressions of you and how they behave around you. Make no mistake, when someone looks at you, it is never simply at you. It is a gaze into the circumstances and positionality that  allowed you to get to this point.

University is both a result of this and a way to shed light on it that you may not otherwise be able to experience. University is a privileged space that allows discussions for how the world can be changed, but often at a more abstract level than you may see in politics or read in the newspapers. The systems of inequality that continue to pervade society is something that many students are aware of – the apparent covering up of the Women of Colour mural outside Gordon Aikman Lecture Theatre is an example of how the world is a complicated place that allows questionable decisions to pass almost unoticed, and any outcry at this is proof that such things often do not go unoticed in a place like the University of Edinburgh. Without higher education, this kind of awareness may be difficult to achieve.

It is not the case that university lecturers explicitly hammer this mantra into their students. The very best lecturers and tutors at the University of Edinburgh simply let it be known that the world is not an accident. A lot of changes – physical, social and everything inbetween – have taken place to get to this point. Recognising these changes and the circumstances that led to their appearance is an important step in making yourself aware of the social structure that underpins humanity and your own contingency in all this.

University’s biggest draw is that it offers change. So much in fact that the very word could be shone bright on a neon sign above McEwan Hall, as a confident assurance and promise. Perhaps though this would miss the point. This change is subtle, near invisible, and cannot be identified without the necessary awareness and knowledge that higher education can bring. Make the most of your lectures and of your time here. It really could be revolutionary.

Image: Felix Burton via Flickr

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