We talk, we text, we tweet. And that’s fine. We needn’t require ourselves to think deeply at all hours, in all weather. Some things just don’t need the time, space and gravity we associate with such terms as “discourse,” “debate” and “dialogue.”
But many things do. And one of the dangers for a society that gets too used to the frenetic and featherweight -- and to media tailored to delivering little else -- is that when a real issue comes along, with conflicting ideas and multiple facets, and complexity and weight and much in the balance, we simply have no way to discuss it.
Think immigration in Arizona, justice in Ferguson, religious freedom in Indiana, water wars in California, Confederate iconography in the South, sexual assault on college campuses.
And, importantly, issues like these don’t “come along.” They’re always with us, constantly testing us, and our decisions about them matter. They determine what lives we lead, and what world we’ll leave behind.
So it makes a difference that discourse today, when it happens at all, is often rife with personality, politics, opinion and noise but short on facts -- much less analysis and insight.
This predicament touches on a counterintuitive point that goes to the heart of the problem: facts are not enough. Daniel Moynihan’s eminently quotable “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts” is true enough as far as it goes. But simply memorizing those facts, then trading them with people who already agree with you, advances no argument and makes no decision easier or wiser.
To argue in the sense of debate, to hold a constructive, reasoned conversation with the potential to change minds, we first have to engage the minds we would change: our own as well as others’. Students don’t necessarily arrive at college with the skills to do that, unfortunately, and it’s no wonder. Our digital bubbles and the social media hall of mirrors make it possible to seem connected to every person alive, discussing every topic under the sun, when in truth we’re often engaging merely with enclaves of the like-minded.
A hall of mirrors doesn’t add perspectives, it only multiplies your own; its depth is all pretense.
This is a major paradox of our time. Think, for example, of the heyday of broadcast TV, when news networks numbered exactly three and were indisputably more homogenous than today. And yet they routinely offered opposing points of view. Today our options for news and views have grown exponentially, but paradoxically so too have our tools for sorting ourselves into virtual silos. Two points of view are rarely sufficient in any case, as almost nothing worth arguing about has just two sides. But now, with 1,000 channels and countless blogs that double as echo chambers, we don’t have to listen to even that many.
And while real debate would doubtlessly improve our current landscape, perhaps “dialogue” is the best word for what is most needed today, and always. For true dialogue, two things are required, besides the will to think for oneself rather than accept some authority’s shrink-wrapped opinion package.
The first is to find a sense in which we’re in it together. “We” can be students in a classroom, business competitors, House and Senate colleagues, or newly established neighborhood associations, but the default position has to be the same: if an “us vs. them” dynamic prevails, everybody loses.
In this way, dialogue is equally pledge as practice: it urges us to uphold a sense of community above all, no matter the size of the controversy or the intensity of the conflict. It’s more huddle, less face-off.
It’s also our best tool for delivering productive, civil and nuanced results from even the most passionate disagreements -- which, it’s worth pointing out, is not only inevitable but desirable in a place dedicated to the life of the mind.
Here higher education plays a role that can be easily obscured by the very proper focus on difference. College should most definitely put young people in touch with the vast variety of human thought and experience. But if we do it right, they should also have a growing appreciation for what unites us beneath our differences in color and country, class and gender, age and era: the reassuring bedrock of the genuine human needs, abilities, drives and virtues that we hold in common.
And let’s not pretend any of this is easily done or effortlessly taught. It takes considerable self-awareness, patience and discipline to contribute to such complex conversations, and it takes even more to lead them, to say nothing of the skills and wisdom needed to teach others to do the same. It should be the goal of every intellectual community to advance the depth, breadth and sustaining power of face-to-face dialogue.
The second requirement for true dialogue may be even more important. It depends on a mind-set that can be expressed in four words: I might be wrong.
“The spirit of liberty,” Judge Learned Hand famously said in a 1944 speech, “is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right.” The rest of his sentence is less often quoted but equally pertinent: “The spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women … which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias.”
That’s a high bar for a species as tribal and fallible as ours, but it’s a worthy one. Truth be told, it’s the only way we’ll ever make progress in judging how best to live together, whether that means in colleges, communities or countries.
The best way to start clearing that bar?
Helping our young people to value reflection over reflexes, giving them effective ways to listen, think, converse and cooperate -- not offering them “cut flowers,” as the educational leader John Gardner once put it, but “teaching them to grow their own plants.”
Ryan Hays is executive vice president at the University of Cincinnati.
Media pundits agree: college students are politically correct, infantile whiners who can’t tolerate discomfort regarding their values or sense of identity. Versions of this narrative have become common in recent months as student activism has increased around issues of sexual assault, race-based discrimination and hate speech.
Descriptions of exaggerated behavior are trendy: Judith Shulevitz’s article for The New York Times in which she expresses concern about student hypersensitivity has been shared on Facebook more than 100,000 times since it was published in March. One anecdote from Shulevitz’s article, describing students’ creation of a “safe space” for sexual assault survivors that featured a video of puppies, has been recycled by thousands of other media outlets.
At Princeton University, we saw an uptick in student activism during the past academic year, including demonstrations and social media campaigns. I’ll admit that, like every college administrator, I’ve encountered a few student activists who are strident or immature. Some students reflexively oppose everything proposed by “the establishment,” and some don’t understand the concept of freedom of expression. These activists undermine their own causes by making themselves ripe for caricature.
But we should resist this dismissive depiction of college students, which uses the most egregious examples to mischaracterize the full range of activism. It’s seductive to buy in to this distortion because it allows colleges and universities, as well as the general public, to play down the causes for concern.
We can’t allow trivializing stories about the beliefs and behavior of a few students to distract us from the responsibility to prevent unfair and discriminatory experiences for those with minority identities.
Explicitly bigoted events still happen with painful regularity on campuses. This year, Bucknell University expelled three students for racist comments made on a radio program, and the Westchester County district attorney’s office is investigating images of swastikas and nooses spray painted in dormitories at the State University of New York’s Purchase campus. The University of Oklahoma closed a fraternity chapter after video footage surfaced of a racist chant by the chapter’s members.
When incidents are so extreme, colleges and universities typically respond with reprobation and swift disciplinary action. But many of the barriers to an inclusive campus climate are more nuanced and difficult to address. When students challenge their institutions about these issues, they are expressing real concerns about real experiences.
When Harvard undergraduates launched the I, Too, Am Harvard campaign in 2014, they used self-portraits to express the subtle ways in which they were made to feel isolated or stereotyped. “You don’t sound black … you sound smart,” one student recalled being told. The campaign has since spread to more than thirty universities on four continents.
Two new studies confirm that these interactions -- ranging from the small slights often labeled “microaggressions” to outright harassment -- are common and have lasting effects. One study (Caplan and Ford, 2014) describes the ways in which racism and sexism on four campuses undermined students’ academic performance and ability to take advantage of extracurricular offerings. A second project that surveyed students of color at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (Harwood, Choi, Orozco, Huntt and Mendenhall, 2015) found similar outcomes.
On another front, student activists have pushed college administrators to respond more aggressively to sexual harassment and violence on campuses. Cases like the recent rape trial at Vanderbilt University get the most attention, but evidence continues to accumulate that the risks in general, particularly for young women, are inexcusably high.
In June, both a University of Michigan internal survey and a broad-based Washington Post poll reported that one in five women say that they were sexually assaulted in college.
These negative personal encounters are being exacerbated by anonymous social media platforms like Yik Yak. These apps, which work within a restricted radius close to campus, have become a well-documented vehicle for anonymous abuse, including racist, homophobic and sexist statements as well as threats of mass violence.
Examples like these remind us that issues of campus climate and safety are not just the fantasies of thin-skinned students. On the contrary, coping with these experiences requires resilience.
I won’t claim that students on my campus always knew how to organize effectively, or that their indignation was always well expressed. Contrary to the media portrayals, however, they were consistently constructive. Stimulated by the episodes of police brutality nationally, our students worked with faculty members and administrators to apply the problem-solving skills they were learning in the classroom and make recommendations to enhance the campus climate locally. Both the undergraduate and graduate student governments sponsored forums and referenda that provided useful feedback.
Let’s not allow cherry-picked examples and silly stereotypes to distract us from the responsibility of colleges and universities to guarantee equitable experiences. Nor should we underestimate the meaningful role that student activists can play.
This year is the 55th anniversary of the Greensboro sit-ins, when students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University decided that they would no longer tolerate segregated lunch counters. As the sit-ins spread to multiple cities, anxious college leaders disavowed the protests and tried to persuade the students to halt.
We can be grateful that the Greensboro students ignored their elders. Our students will ignore us, too, if we waste the opportunity to work with them to create the fair, inclusive environment that they deserve.
Michele Minter is vice provost for institutional equity and diversity at Princeton University.
Students were a key force in toppling Ukrainian autocrat Victor Yanukovych. They were on the Maidan battleground in Kiev from beginning to end. They were also instrumental in the 2004 Orange Revolution in the aftermath of that year’s presidential election, which was marred by corruption and outright electoral fraud. Students were active on Tahrir Square in Cairo when Hosni Mubarak was forced from office, and they were active participants in all of the Arab Spring movements.
The beginnings of student-dominated youth movements in “color revolutions” come probably with the Serbian Otpor (“Resistance”) movement, which was started in 1998 as a response to the repressive university and media laws introduced by the regime at the time led by Slobodan Milošević. In 2000, Otpor organized a campaign “Gotov je” (“He is finished”), ultimately leading to Milošević’s defeat in elections. Organizations such as Kmara in Georgia, active in the Rose Revolution in 2003, KelKel in Kyrgystan in the 2005 Tulip Revolution, and Pora in Ukraine were all inspired and trained by Otpor. Students occupied the Taiwan legislature protesting a trade agreement with China for several weeks in March, 2014 — and spearheaded a protest rally of 100,000.
Although the era of student revolutions may have ended a half-century ago, students continue to be active in politics, and they are often a key force in political movements directed toward social change around the world. Students may no longer be at the center of political movements, but they are often indispensable participants, frequently helping to shape the messages, ideologies, and tactics of protest movements.
Students have also been engaged in university politics and policy. German students successfully pushed to have free higher education restored, convincing politicians and the public. Similarly, high school and university students in Chile demonstrated for extended periods to improve educational quality, end for-profit education, and eliminate tuition and fees. They finally succeeded when Michelle Bachelet won the presidency in 2013. In Canada, the “Maple Spring” protests in 2012 emerged from students’ opposition to the government’s announcement of increased tuition fees and led to the fall of Québec’s government.
In some parts of the world, student agitation, often relating to campus issues, cause governments to shut universities for extended periods. This has occurred in Nigeria, and universities in Myanmar were closed for several years after student protests against the military dictatorship. In many of these cases, student demands have combined local campus issues with broader political concerns. They seldom had success in social change, although sometimes university policies or conditions have altered.
Despite continuing activism and impressive but often-ignored success, student activism has not received the scholarly attention that it once did. This may be because movements that may originate on the campus often move quickly off the campus and to the streets and involve many other segments of society. Unlike the 1960s, when students were often both the originators and main participants in protest movements, more recent movements have involved a wider section of the population. Students often lost control over the protests, and in fact in some cases student leaders left the campus to run for public office or participate in a broader leadership coalition. Nonetheless, students have remained a key spearhead for oppositional movements and protests.
The 'Iron Law' of Student Activism
There is an iron law of student political activism. Students can often bring public attention to political issues and, when there is an undercurrent of discontent, may help to create political movements that may destabilize or even defeat regimes. As a social group, students tend to have the leisure of time to exchange and develop ideas and organize within the tightly knit university environment; and the public tends to be sympathetic to students’ concerns.
But students cannot control national politics once a regime is removed. They may infiltrate political parties; but, in the wider political arena, the typically adversary and uncompromising voices of student activists do not get far. Societal politics is generally about political power vested in economic and military resources, in ability to build alliances and forge compromises. While energetic and driven, if students enter the political arena, they may become only a marginal voice — since they seldom possess the substantial and procedural knowledge, experience, and networks required for the larger political stage.
Indeed, in most cases, politics after the end of the social movement moves in directions quite different than advocated by the students. Thus, students may be a precipitating force for social and political change, but never control the outcomes.
Events in both Egypt and Ukraine support the “iron law.” Students in general did not favor the ascendance of the Muslim Brotherhood to power following the Arab Spring, nor were students in general happy with some of the ultranationalist forces that became influential in the recent Ukrainian events.
Success on the Educational Front
Students have sometimes had better success with educational issues. Although massive student demonstrations — and the opposition of British academics — failed to keep high tuition fees from being imposed in England and Wales, students were successful in Germany in rolling back tuition charges so that all of the German states are now committed to free higher education. Protracted demonstrations by high school and university students in Chile resulted in major education reforms and the rollback of previously high student tuition fees.
The contemporary student protests on the educational front tend to be against cuts in public finding of higher education and increases in tuition fees, both of which are associated with neoliberal reforms in higher education. Austerity measures, following the global financial crisis, have accelerated the implementation of such reforms in countries where they previously did not exist. Although the differences between countries continue to be pronounced, a sense exists nevertheless that the national higher education systems are becoming more alike in the sense of being more market-oriented, even in countries with a strong social-welfare tradition.
The fight against tuition fees remains the single most powerful mobilizing force for student activism worldwide. Other social-welfare concerns — such as availability of student housing, subsidized food and transportation — occasionally lead to more localized types of protests initiated by the local student unions and typically also fairly quickly resolved. Quality assurance is almost never an issue salient enough to mobilize students to political action. These questions are handled by the elected student representatives, who consult the universities voicing student expectations and their satisfaction.
21st-Century Student Activism
Many argued that student activism would disappear in the era of higher education massification. Diverse student populations, part-time study for many, the non-elite social backgrounds of most students, the increasingly high cost of higher education in many countries, and other factors all argued against active political and social engagement. This clearly has not been the case. Students remain a potent political and social force, and only the modes of their involvement have been changing. Students are less likely to vote and less likely to join political parties.
But they ARE more likely take part in online petitions, join boycotts, express views in online forums, involve themselves in advocacy social networks, and participate in demonstrations and protest movements. The nature of student activism still very much depends on which part of the globe is being considered. As the World Values Surveys depict, in Western societies where entire value systems have shifted to postmodernism, students are becoming more individualistic and perhaps more interested in subjective well-being, self-expression, and quality of life. There are other societies where democratization, including minority rights, freeing political processes and institutions from corruption, and so forth, remain salient and compelling issues.
Even in postmodern postindustrial societies, some students remain politically engaged — as evidenced by student involvement in the Occupy movements and student participation demonstrations against tuition increases in England. The potential grievances that may mobilize students into student movements for social change are obviously very different, depending on which part of the world is being considered.
Philip G. Altbach is research professor and director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College. Manja Klemenčič is postdoctoral fellow in sociology at Harvard University.