Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Which Kind of Change is Most Human?


Reading Time: 5 minutes

I’ve been thinking… Which of these is the most human or most humanizing way of being, and thinking about change:

Gandhi’s “be the change you want to see in this world”, and when thinking of this post right after I had prayed the early morning prayer, I realized how Gandhi’s idea is also very similar to a Quranic verse:

God changes not what is in a people, until they change what is in themselves. (33:13 Sahih international translation; some translations use “what is in a nation” rather than “in a people”)

Basic message: change yourself if you want to change the world as Gandhi said. It is good practice for how to achieve it one person at a time, right?

And yet Garth Brooks (in no way comparable in greatness to the Quran or even Gandhi, tho i just learned he’s politically liberal which is saying a lot for a country singer) has a beautiful song (which I think came after 9/11) called “The Change“. Interesting title given the main message in the chorus :

And I hear them saying
“You’ll never change things
And no matter what you do
It’s still the same thing”
But it’s not the world that I
Am changing
I do this so
This world will know
That it will not change me

So is it more human to believe in a person’s capacity to change (in order to change the world) or to believe in a person’s ability to stay the same despite a changing world, to resist losing oneself?

Both, right? Duh. I’ll expand on this briefly then show how it can get more complicated

Briefly: there are parts in us that are our core values, beliefs, principles, that we want to hold on to and resist external influence – parts of our inner voice that we need to protect in order to maintain our integrity and even identity. The parts Garth is talking about. And there are other parts in ourselves that we need to change in order to influence change outside us, to challenge the status quo.

On a (relevant) side note, I have a strong core belief in open access, and open collab supportive peer review (based on other deeper beliefs that I hope I never lose), but if I realized that if I want change to occur beyond my blissful bubble of Hybrid Pedagogy and emerging ed tech, I need to find ways to talk to more traditional pedagogues/scholars about this. I have tried before and failed multiple times (and that’s the “they will not change me” part I guess), but I also want to influence change, and that means to continue to try to push the boundaries in multiple domains. But it also means being able to speak a language that people outside my online supportive bubble can speak, in order to get my message across. It might mean a long heart-to-heart with  someone who continues to call my scholarship “research-like” and constantly forgets that much of it is peer-reviewed (without even knowing that hybridped uses open peer review; without Realizing i publish outside hybridped quite a bit, too). It also means trying to publish more of my more radical ideas in less radical places. Damn it’s hard. I’ve tried it and failed a few times. I totally sympathize with Bonnie Stewart’s predicament re how writing for traditional journals forces her to adhere to standards, a voice, different from her own. But within certain limits (eg I am incapable of writing in 3rd person, and have argued before until editors allowed me to remain in 1st person) it is almost necessary to engage in more traditional spaces to get our message across rather than preach to our choir who will cheer us. It’s an uphill battle, I know, so I pick which battles to fight. I also now know 2 weapons I may use: I can object about a review to an editor; and I can request particular (categories of) people not review my work. Imagine doing highly qualitative interpretive research and having it evaluated by someone who only does quantitative work with a positivist mindset.

Sorry, now where was I?

To complicate this. When we stop thinking about ourselves and start thinking about others. Our students, our children, our partners, but also our superiors at work, our peers. Is it more human to approach them as fixed beings we cannot change, accept them as they are, and work around that? Or to consider them changeable, transformable?

In some ways, it seems most respectful to accept them as they are, go to them where they are at. Like we do with our students, we try to meet them where their needs and interests are, and in doing so, in caring about them and what they care about, we sometimes find that they have been transformed by learning with us in some way.

In parenting, I think it might be a matter of scale. Some people focus a lot on the details of how they want their child to be and behave, whereas I try to step back and be as responsive to my child’s needs and interests as makes sense and is possible. Of course some behavior is acceptable and some not, but more importantly I want to make sure I don’t break her spirit in the process. I also see ways in which i need to change myself in order to see change in her. If she is raising her voice or acting tense, it means i might have raised my voice, or she may have seen me tense.

Thinking about trying to influence people more powerful than ourselves tends to evoke the opposite reaction: we want them to accept us as we are, and not try to mould us in some way. Our bosses, the gatekeepers of scholarship in our fields. And yet what we are really trying to do is to get them to understand us. Is it possible we think we understand them but we actually don’t?

I am using we but I really mean me 🙂

When I find myself thinking “if only they would understand me” I am assuming that I understand them. Usually when we are subaltern we do have better knowledge of the culture of the dominant than vice versa. If we are critical pedagogues we  are aware that oppressors may not be conscious of the truly damaging ways in which they exert power, the ways they harm us.

There are people in the workplace who intentionally step over others or hurt them for personal gain. There are others who simply want their own thing, never intentionally hurting anyone but can be blind to how they might be hurting others along the way (and I stand shamed here for having done this – in focusing on my own issues, I lose sight of how it might affect others).

It is most complicated in peer relationships where it is not always clear who has more power in situations of mutual oppression. Two peers in slight competition (coupled w love and cooperation) may feel they are mutually oppressing each other (I have multiple such relationships!). I look at these and wonder if the one with more power is more to blame, more responsible, but power is not a monolithic, linear static thing. And blame is not helpful to resolving conflict, even though taking responsibility is.

This post has helped me think through some issues that have been bothering me for a while. Wondering if it makes any sense to anyone else?

Just so you know, my conclusions from thinking this through are:
A. Figure out what my core values are that i want to protect
B. Beyond my core values, what do I need to change within myself to create the changes i want outside myself
C. How do I communicate (and this includes listening, but listening assumes the other person is able to express themselves well with words!) with those different from me to reach a common ground for dialogue?

Note: Clarissa wrote yday to remind me it has been a year since she and I blogged (or started) about oppression. This post is a reminder of how complex and lifelong the struggle is


  1. Maha- Your A. and B. conclusions align with my Buddhist practice and a term translated in English as Kyochi Myogo. The idea is how do you fuse your subjective and objective realities to achieve wisdom. Your subjective is how you see yourself when you look in the mirror, along with the 3,000 realms the Lotus Sutra says you experience in a single moment. Your objective reality is how others see you, in your blog, and in your daily reality with others. You stand up in front of your students trying to be something, and what do they think you are trying to be or do? Anyone that works in an education environment ponders this. Buddhism also suggests that you indeed must change inside to manifest the change in your environment. So we indeed protect our values, but the real challenge is to share or spread our values with those that observe us, hoping they understand our motivation. We want to be authentic.

    • Thank you Charlie, and for enlightening me to the Buddhism connection. I hadn’t thought of the concept of aligning subjective vs objective realities (probably coz i don’t think of many things in life as objective) but maybe internal and external realities? The way we see ourselves and the way others see us, as you say. But also the way we see others, which is partly related to our perception and their behavior. Thanks for making me think more deeply about this…

  2. Great post, I think you have to remember that what makes us most human is our capacity for change or adaption. The listening, the being open to others’ opinions, that is all a part of the process of change, but it is a part from the actual change which you are striving for. I think good change happens when both the outcome is positive and the process honors the people who are involved in it.

    You mention figuring out what your core values are and protecting them. I would suggest you already know what your core values are and that there is no need to worry about protecting them. In fact, I think it is more fruitful to ask; what are the core values of the people whom I am trying to change? If you are busy trying to protect your core values, you will never be able to truly understand the core values of those around you because they will be busy protecting those values from you, just as you are protecting your values from them.

    • Oh my God, Joe, that is so insightful! Wow. That’s just… So insightful. I need to sit and absorb this. Thank you!

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