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Where have all the protests gone?

By Gerard J. DeGroot / December 17, 1999



In 1766, 10 years before the Declaration of Independence, students at Harvard launched the first campus protest on American soil. At issue was the disgusting food in the college dining hall, in particular the rancid butter.

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"Behold our butter stinketh, and we cannot eat thereof," went the activists' manifesto.

As a slogan, it lacked the punch of later efforts like "make love, not war," but it was nevertheless indicative of the students' willingness to express their discontent.

Once they had raised their voices, quiescence was henceforth rare. In a further exercise of assertiveness, Harvard students subsequently stoned the windows of overly strict tutors. Words like "liberty" and "freedom" became common rallying cries. "It too manifestly appears that a spirit of opposition to government and order has prevailed among the undergraduates," Edward Holyoke, the college president complained in 1768. Where Harvard went, Princeton and Yale soon followed. A decade of violent student confrontation ensued.

For most people, campus activism seems an isolated phenomenon confined to a decade when hair was long, skirts short, and tempers violent. But the Harvard better-butter movement illustrates that student protest is in fact a culture, an established tradition complete with myths, martyrs, language, and costume.

In the US, activism in the 1960s usually took place at institutions that had a long history of protest. This radical inheritance has spread: Student protesters in Tiananmen Square copied tactics of earlier Korean activists who in turn borrowed slogans from 1960s America.

The 1960s, therefore, are not unique. Students are often at the cutting edge of social radicalism, because they alone possess the sometimes volatile combination of youthful dynamism, naive utopianism, disrespect for authority, buoyant optimism, and inclination to mischief. They think of themselves as an intellectual elite - the natural leaders of the next generation. For this reason, they are often impatient to reshape society.

Throughout history, narrow student concerns relating to the quality of education or the standard of accommodation have figured prominently as sources of discontent. Even in the 1960s, matters relating to the "relevance" of the curriculum aroused more student anger than civil rights or Vietnam.

Given this culture of protest, it seems strange that campuses in Europe and America have been so quiet in recent years. Granted, students at Berkeley still ape their radical forebears, but for most of them this takes the form of buying tie-dyed shirts with credit cards and listening to "Maggie's Farm" on a Sony Discman. The silence seems all the more disheartening considering today's students have much to protest.

The decline of higher education evident today is profound, yet at the same time unprovocative. The amount of government money spent per student has plummeted, which means that though tuition fees have risen drastically, the quality of provision has actually declined. This has meant larger classes, over-stretched libraries, and much of the teaching taken by under-qualified part-time staff.

It is perhaps fortunate that a good many students do not take their studies seriously; otherwise libraries wouldn't be able to cope with the demand for resources.

Years ago, the student who complained that he could not find the necessary books for a term paper was probably simply lazy. Today, he is more likely a legitimate victim of the financial squeeze.

This decline in the quality of higher education has been greeted with hardly a shudder of complaint. While Chinese students throw themselves in front of tanks and Koreans set fire to themselves, students in the West focus on their next job interview or the next football game.

Governments have undoubtedly been delighted by the deep student apathy, as it has made otherwise contentious budget cuts all the more easy to introduce.

It seems strange that Harvard students were once sufficiently motivated to riot over rancid butter, but today's students can't rouse themselves to protest against a fundamental erosion of quality.

Perhaps the current generation of students, worried about their future, are reluctant to rock an already unsteady boat. But by apathetically accepting an imperfect education system, they endorse its imperfections.

Their silence is doubly unfortunate because protest is a symptom of involvement. The students' silence is evidence that they are not engaging their world. They seem to have no faith in their ability to improve their own lives and cynically accept the status quo. This is frightening, if for no other reason than that today's students are tomorrow's leaders.

Universities are producing huge flocks of well-educated sheep. A few years ago, students in one of my classes complained that budget cuts had forced the library to close earlier.

When I suggested that they should imitate previous generations of activists and simply refuse to leave the library when asked to do so, I was greeted with stunned silence. After a while, one student meekly asked: "Can we do that? Is it permitted?"

I rest my case.

*Gerard DeGroot, an American, is chairman of the department of modern history at the University of St. Andrews, in St. Andrews, Scotland.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society