Student Protests, Past and Present

Placing today’s student protests into historical perspective.

January 25, 2021

From Harvard’s Butter rebellion of 1766 to today’s demands to increase the diversity of professors and the student body, require classes in ethnic studies, expand mental health resources, rename buildings, remove statues, expand financial aid, and refund tuition in response to the shift to remote learning, protest has been a staple of campus life.

Indeed, many of the issues that animate campus protests today resonate with those from the past, including criticisms of the canon, free speech on campus and greater inclusiveness in admissions and hiring policies.

Far from a marginal topic, student activism has helped drive educational reform and institutional transformation and left a lasting imprint on local, state and national politics.

During the 19th century, for example, the introduction of letter grades, the broadening of the curriculum, the appearance of the first student organizations -- from literary and debating societies to fraternities -- the construction of dormitories, and the rise of intercollegiate athletics were all part of the institutional response to student unrest.

In our own time, there’s no doubt that a wave of disinvitations and shout downs of controversial speakers and controversies surrounding political correctness, trigger warnings, intersectionality, implicit bias and safe spaces, amplified by social media, sensationalist mainstream outlets and denunciations from the Trump administration, became part of the culture war that has polarized public opinion about higher education.

No history of American higher education is complete if it fails to take account of student protests. The history of American colleges and universities is, in part, a struggle over students’ freedom. In the late 18th century, this frequently took the form of protests against the arbitrary exercise of college authority, the denials of personal liberty and the treatment of students as juveniles. As one letter writer put it, “Oppression will make a wise man mad, how much more a Company of unwise and giddy Youth.”

In subsequent decades, students -- certainly not all students, but many -- repeatedly sought to assert their rights, including the right to a voice in campus governance, a right to privacy and free speech and freedom of expression, and a right to live and organize free of administrative oversight, at times in unruly, disruptive and even violent ways. There’s no doubt that students fueled the movement toward electives and a more practical, relevant curriculum.

Our society suffers from historical amnesia or dementia that makes it hard to connect past and present. I’m sure it’s hard for today’s students to imagine the struggles of their predecessors over dress codes, mandatory chapel attendance, prescribed curricula or parietals -- or the ways that administrators, in turn, attempted to channel and redirect and, at times, discipline student energies and discontents.

Deprived of historical perspective, it’s easy to imagine that whatever is occurring today lacks precedents or is considerably worse than what happened in the past. But student protest has a history worth pondering.

Although campus activism has deep historical roots, it dates, in its current form, to the 1930s, when mass protests -- in opposition to militarism and racial discrimination and in support of labor unions -- became commonplace on many college campuses. But it was, of course, the student activism of the late 1960s that has formed the template for subsequent student activism.

What have scholars learned about student protest movements?

  • That student protest is cyclical and generational, surfacing, surging, retreating and resurfacing -- and that the generational component is crucial, inspiring and informing the tactics and rhetoric of new generations of activists.
  • That the focus of student protests shifts, sometimes focusing on international issues (like apartheid or the Israeli occupation of the West Bank), national issues (such as sexual harassment and misconduct), and campus or local issues -- and that these shifts in focus generally reflect a broader shift in attitudes, norms, outlook and discourse within the “culture industry” including foundation leaders, journalists, artists, psychologists, lawyers and law professors, and adult activists.
  • That even as student activists generate a new language and new slogans and watchwords -- for example, the battle cry of “participatory democracy” in the Port Huron Statement of 1962 -- they draw upon the discourses and ideologies that are available, such as various forms of Marxist thought during the 1930s, the Frankfurt school in the 1960s and critical theory more recently.
  • That while left-wing protest has drawn much more media and scholarly attention than its right-wing counterpart -- which is often treated as engaged in acts of provocation, such as bringing incendiary speakers to campus or publicizing supposed examples of professorial bias -- campus activism by conservatives, beginning with the Young Americans for Freedom, played a pivotal role in the development of a coterie of conservative political officeholders and judges.
  • That student activism since the 1960s is best understood not as a unified movement but, rather, as separate movements that cooperate and share, to a certain extent, a common discourse and set of tactics, even though they have separate agendas and concerns.
  • That the administrative response has taken diverse forms, sometimes highly oppositional, at times tolerant and even empathetic and, in certain instances, strongly supportive -- which, in turn, reflects administrators’ assessment of various stakeholders’ attitudes.

Although many scholars of student activism identify and sympathize with campus protesters, popular interpretations tend to be more critical and even dismissive. In the popular press, campus protests are sometimes interpreted in Oedipal terms or as a byproduct of overprotective parenting that has produced a generation of fragile snowflakes or as revolt against liberal ideas of tolerance, free speech and academic freedom.

Others depict protests as an outgrowth of activist academic programs or as the consequence of the promptings of activist midlevel administrators. Still others trivialize protests as the guilt trips of the privileged or a secularized form of the religious impulse, with references to awakenings (or now “awokenings”), heresy, blasphemy, excommunication and a sense of moral superiority and being on the right side of history.

What is clear is that today’s protests should not be viewed, simply, as a reaction to the Trump administration. The current wave of protests began around 2012, which was then followed by a sharp upsurge in campus protests nationwide in the fall of 2014 -- which, in turn, mirrored the broader growth in the number of Americans who called themselves progressives during those very years.

A defining characteristic of this recent surge in protests is that it is a product of inclusion and the empowerment of groups previously excluded or marginalized. As new student populations arrived on campus in unprecedented numbers and shifted from the sidelines to center stage, new issues, new forms of advocacy, new voices and new demands entered into campus conversations.

It’s easy to decry today’s student protesters’ choice of targets: attacking inappropriate Halloween costumes or the cultural appropriation of earrings and egg rolls rather than campuses' reliance on adjuncts or the underemphasis on the quality of teaching. Or, much more controversially, focusing on disinvestment in fossil fuels or companies that invest in the West Bank, as opposed addressing inequities in admissions or the inadequacy of public investment in broad-access institutions.

But, then, those of us old enough to have participated in movements to abolish academic requirements or to disinvest in companies doing business in South Africa should be the first to acknowledge that there are many problems in the world, and prioritizing evils is no easy task. Let a thousand flowers bloom.

A college, at its best, is a place of exploration, identify formation, value clarification, aspiration and philosophical reflection, and the college years are, ideally, a time to test boundaries, question tradition, undergo fresh experiences and try out various identities -- in short, to grow and mature and experiment with new ideas, values sensibilities and aesthetics.

To that end, colleges should welcome students’ efforts to question university policies and practices, re-examine the campus’s educational goals and stage protests. After all, students are universities’ fourth estate, the drivers of institutional self-criticism, with the capacity to advocate, frame issues and, yes, impose demands.

In Book 2 of his Rhetoric, Aristotle describes youth as “passionate, hot-tempered, and carried away by impulse, and unable to control their passion.” “If they do wrong, it is due to insolence,” he reminds us, “not to wickedness.”

With words we should take to heart, he adds, “They are high-minded, for they have not yet been humbled by life nor have they experienced the force of necessity; further, there is high-mindedness in thinking oneself worthy of great things, a feeling which belongs to one who is full of hope.”

Perhaps the single most distinctive feature of American higher education is its emphasis on student life: on athletics, campus organizations, Greek life and extracurricular activities of all sorts. Even commuter campuses seek to cultivate a rich and active student life, because it is the “third sector” where students forge a sense of collective identity and learn those soft skills that are the key to flourishing as an adult.

At times nihilistic, intolerant and destructive, student protest often provokes a backlash. But student dissidence has, for over three centuries, been a staple of student life. If campuses are genuinely committed to producing leaders, they must recognize that dissidence, protest and activism are key contributors to the developmental process.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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