Should universities teach topics that are relevant to students? That seems like a weird question, right. The answer should be obvious. Yes, of course they should! Duh! But it’s not always as easy as that. Sometimes there are unexpected consequences, and that’s what this opinion piece is about.

Imagine you’re studying something like English literature at university. Should the novels, poetry and so forth cover topics that are relevant to the lives of South African students? Sure. But that means covering topics such as racism, sexism, homophobia, poverty, substance abuse, government corruption, climate change and so no. And this brings me to the heart of this piece.

Over the years, while I have been teaching such topics at a South African university, I have noticed that many students start off all happy and ultra enthusiastic about studying these real-life issues. However, over time, they become despondent. Why? Because issues such as racial inequality are systemic. That means, they were created way back in the distant past, and they changed the way societies were organised back then. The society we live in now still bears the imprints of that history. The past has long-term consequences that affect people for generations. That’s not all: Such problems get worse when you combine them with new issues such as government corruption, global financial uncertainties, idiotic wars and climate change. All of this means that when you study something like racial inequality at university, you might just discover that the issue is so big and so far beyond your personal control that you start feeling powerless – so powerless, in fact, that it might just feel easier to ignore it, stop thinking about it and hope that you will be okay at an individual level.

This happens to many students I teach. Once they realise the scope of the dilemma, despair hits them like a 4×4. I cannot honestly say: Just keep studying because everything is going to be okay. We don’t know whether things are going to be okay. No one does. So, what am I saying?

My main point is simple: When you first learn about systemic issues, despair is understandable, but there might still be things we can do. We can still do something to make our situation, our communities, our cities and maybe even our country a better place. However, we will not know what to do until we learn more about exactly how the problem works. That is what studying is for. It might seem like learning more and more about systemic racism, sexism and so forth serves no purpose because the problem is too big. Yet the more you learn, the more you get to understand about the issue, and the more you meet like-minded people who want to improve things, and together you learn more about what might be done.

That is my point. Studies offer no easy solutions – not in and of themselves. But knowledge – detailed, nuanced, and super specific knowledge – is vital for figuring out what we can do. Acting on the basis that just a little bit of knowledge is as dangerous as doing nothing at all.