Education Is in the Streets

A global wave of student protests has spread over the past two years. Scott McLemee looks into a new book from the barricades.

August 31, 2011

When students took to the streets in Rome last November to demonstrate against proposed budget cuts to the university system, they introduced something new to the vocabulary of protest. To defend themselves from police truncheons they carried improvised shields made of polystyrene, painted, on the front, with the names of classic works of literature and philosophy: Moby Dick, The Republic, Don Quixote, A Thousand Plateaus…. The practice caught on. A couple of weeks later, another “Book Bloc” appeared in London as students and public-sector workers demonstrated against rising tuition.

By the time an enormous anti-Berlusconi protest took place in Rome on December 14, a group of Italian faculty members had decided on a syllabus of 20 titles worth carrying into battle. It’s all over the place: The Odyssey and Fahrenheit 451, Spinoza’s Ethics and Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto, Foucault and Fight Club. And so when the forces of law and order descended on the protesters, swinging, it was a visual allegory of culture in the age of austerity -- budget-cutting raining blows on the life of the mind, though also, perhaps, the canon as defensive weapon.

The full list of works suggested by the wonderfully named Network of Rebel Faculty appears in Springtime: The New Student Rebellions, a collection of articles and images edited by Clare Solomon and Tania Palmieri; it was published by Verso in England earlier this year, and is appearing in the U.S. just now. Solomon was president of the student union at the University of London during the protests last year; the introduction, dated from January, has the feel of something written with the adrenaline and endorphins still flowing. Some of the pieces at the end of the book narrate and analyze the then-breaking developments in Tunisia, Egypt, and Algeria. In addition to sections on France and Greece, there are documents and analyses from the student protests in California during the 2009-1010 academic year.

The effect is less that of an anthology than of a scrapbook -- with articles, photographs, and street posters taped in alongside printouts of Twitter exchanges and (every so often) excerpts from accounts of student protests from the late 1960s that tend to be jarringly inapposite. “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living,” as somebody once pointed out. “And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.” The relevance of the slogans of 1968 (with their assumptions about alienation amid growing affluence and free time) is now just about nil. Maybe we should forget them for a while. The student protests of the past two years have resembled wildcat strikes or factory occupations more than reenactments of the Free Speech Movement or Vietnam-era teach-ins.

That’s no accident. The role of the economic crisis in precipitating university unrest -- whether through rising postsecondary fees, shrinking job markets, or the inability of sudden fragility of neoliberalized states (unable to preserve social order through coercion alone but unwilling to shore up social services by raising taxes) -- seems clear enough.

In an e-mail exchange with Solomon, I asked if the world situation since the financial heart attack of 2008 were creating a shared ideology or a set of demands among student protesters.

“The general demands of the youth and student movements, are not necessarily codified,” she responded, “but they are quite clear. Firstly, there’s a cry of anger. Society has prospered, but now asks them to pay for the crisis and so often ignores their voices. The increasing marketization and cost of education, lack of post-education jobs and opportunities, ever-increasing living and housing costs, are forcing young people onto the unemployment lines, keeping them living with their parents longer and with little disposable income to enjoy life. Parts of society and government continue to demonize and vilify young people as dangerous and 'other,' as almost outside of accepted society.”

Part of the dissatisfaction -- at least as reflected in the sections of the book on European protests -- comes from the rise of “the enterprise university” as credentialing agency for a labor market that is constantly in flux. One chapter of Springtime, “The Factory of Precarious Workers” by Giulio Calella, says that recent reforms in Italy “would transform the university into a location for so-called permanent training” while “promoting competition among universities in order to put pressure on lecturers to increase productivity” and assessing every element of academic life as a “relationship between input and output” geared to maximum “customer satisfaction.”

Here an American idiom occurs to the American reader: “Yeah, tell me about it.” But Calella is anything but resigned to the situation he describes, and ardent in his protest at the narrowing of the pedagogical horizon:

“The slogan of the old university's professor, according to which anyone who entered the university was a ‘scholar, not a student,’ has been buried under the super-professional labels of the new laurea degree courses; the frantic pace imposed on full-time students; continuous assessments; bibliographies made of textbooks; and a de facto trimester system which impedes any attempt by the student to familiarize himself or herself with the subject, and therefore to develop any kind of critical approach to it. This is a deskilled and devalued pedagogy, the engine of a factory that produces precarious workers and fragments knowledge production by amplifying its specialized and partial character.”

Clare Solomon registered much the same complaint in our exchange. “We want a new type of education,” she wrote, “not just faceless, corporate entities pandering to the 'employability agenda' at the expense of real co-produced education. So this is more than just protest against rising fees.”

It’s tempting to quote a good deal more from Springtime, which will probably be a popular book among some layers of the student body over the next year. And the particular combination of issues it raises should earn it some attention from faculty as well. Despite the occasional nod to Boomer nostalgia (the lyrics to "Street Fighting Man" in Mick Jagger's handwriting, for example), the collection is really defined by a very contemporary overlap of problems: the economic pressures on all levels of education, on the one hand; and the difficulty of defining education's social value when the labor market can’t absorb many new graduates, on the other. (“A university diploma is now worth no more than a share in General Motors,” in the words of an acerbic pamphlet from the California protests.)

But as much as anything else, I hope that readers will focus on the pages devoted to the Book Bloc, which include photographs of its various incarnations at a number of protests. “Books are our tools,” reads a statement from Art Against Cuts, a British group; “we teach with them, we learn with them, we play with them, we create with them, we make love with them and, sometimes, we must fight with them.” There is a vitality to this formulation that is anything but bookish. It involves a sense of culture as an active process -- a verb you practice, rather than a noun you accumulate. And respect for one’s tools is, after all, the prerequisite for any education worthy of the name.


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