Generally speaking, my parents and I get along. My political existence is admittedly the crossroads at which their respective ideologies meet. I find it difficult to find gaping chasms in life perspective with the people who taught me to tie my shoes (by shopping Velcro). Our ideologically symbiotic activity aside, however, there is one issue that comprises the meat of the debate between the walls of the Rottman household. We disagree fervently on the role of student activism and protest in modern American politics.
My father insists that we can meet all government injustices with civilian activism, as his “Dissent is Patriotic” bumper sticker so plainly suggests, and that we youngsters have failed to engage authority at every opportunity. While I do not disagree, I retain that he’s old as fuck. Times have changed; the age of information muddles our aggregate political voices together, allowing society to masquerade in digital “political activism” on blogs and in newspapers’ online comments sections. As a result, the type of genuine civil disobedience of Dr. King’s era has melted to a heap of 21st-century apathy.
If anything, America has become too free to function. We students have learned not to expect results from our modern protest efforts, whether they manifest in older forms or newer ones.
So, is effective student political activism dead?
My five years of experience at a university where, had last year been 1970, the shit would’ve hit the proverbial fan, has allowed me to peer into the heart of our debate behind a new set of spectacles. So, let me rephrase the question perhaps more insightfully: how can today’s student activist play his or her role responsibly and act as a dependable leader?
My father’s is an entirely common school of thought, that today’s American campus and its 18 to 23-year-old student demographic have simply dropped the activist ball since the early 1970s, “Waiting on the World to Change” instead of growing a pair and creating the change ourselves.
By many practical standards, this is a valid criticism of the modern American student movement. But my father also used to wear a fanny pack, so his judgment should clearly be subject to as much scrutiny as anyone’s. Some political scientists, however, have more faith in you and me than my father, locating a faulty comparison in the logic of those who doubt you.
In their article “American Student Activism: The Post-Sixties Transformation,” Philip Altbach and Robert Cohen claim that, “given the imposing historical reputation of the student movement of the 1960s, it is understandable that most commentators on student politics … have used the heyday of the New Left as a benchmark for comparative analysis. But this is the wrong comparison. American student activists during most of the 1970s and 1980s attended college when the nation as a whole was shifting rightward as it had in the 1950s, not leftward as it had in the 1960s. And if we make the more appropriate historical comparison between the students of the conservative 1970s to the 1980s with their counterparts in the conservative 1950s … the [later] college generations seem remarkably activist and liberal.”
In conjunction with this ideological shift back to the right was a return to a traditional campus activist with more conservative tactics to achieve similar goals. Gone were the vehement protests of yore, replaced with an effort to work within the confines of the system with government officials, providing educational material to engage the overextended and attempting to raise public consciousness about students’ concerns.
This is where we stand today. While parading down Russell with a megaphone may play to your politically romantic inclinations, you’re more likely to be remixed into an awesome YouTube video. Our role as student activists is no longer to incite riots, it is to enter the political arena just as our UC Regents and members of Congress have, by educating our convictions and creating opportunities for ourselves. If our government ceasing to subsidize our education concerns us conceptually because it is a political injustice for everyone and not just because it affects us individually, then we too need to appreciate that times have changed and adapt to a more traditional, organized and believe it or not, effective activist mentality. Or we’ll achieve nothing, as we have so far.
However, with this more traditional activist strategy in mind, it is easy to understand how people my father’s age might view us as ineffectual. Unfortunately, transparent student activism looks a lot like non-existent student activism.
JOSH ROTTMAN hopes that none of you will futilely fill the comments section of this column and instead use your keyboard to educate your convictions. However, he encourages you to reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.