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after-school activities

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(xposted to Long Sunday…)


In a post about a post in praise of a critique of a supposed revival of the SDS at American University, Michael Kazin notes the lack of student protest at Georgetown, where he teaches:

But activists who don’t focus on electoral politics–or, as in the late ’60s and early ’70s, flip off the major parties altogether–seem far less numerous. At Georgetown, where I teach, pleasant spring and fall mornings bring out a dozen or so tables on the bricked-in quad (known as “Red Square” for its color, not the shading of its politics). Small knots of students promote pro-choice and pro-life and a living wage, recruit for various ethnic and race-based clubs, and sing the virtues of tutoring homeless children or teaching in an inner-city school. Hardly anyone on campus still defends the war in Iraq; even a student of mine who once interrogated prisoners at Abu Ghraib thinks the invasion was a stupid mistake. Still, it’s been months since I saw or heard a single undergrad seek to channel that sentiment into protest. If anyone is trying to organize a local SDS chapter, they must be doing it exclusively on line.

One reads articles like this quite frequently, and certainly it’s hard not to agree that there is a distinct disinvestment in protest culture at US universities. This is not to say that there aren’t mobilized, engaged students – there certainly are. But, in my experience, like Kazin’s, what protest there is seems to be limited to a very small subsector of the student body – a sort of special interest club like any other special interest club. There are small demonstrations, there are ubiquitous photocopies plastered on doors and walls, there are meetings and listservs and discussion groups and hosted speakers. But it never seems to grow or make much of a dent.


So the first item for discussion: do you think this is an accurate rendition of the situation at universities, at your university, if you’re at one? Or is it stupid to fixate so strongly on what happens on campuses in the first place? We are used to thinking of students as the shock troops of revolt and protest, but this hasn’t always – or even often – been the case when you take a slightly wider historical perspective.

Second item for discussion: Why don’t articles like this ever try to make a real stab at why protest culture is now so anemic at universities? One either throws up one’s hands (“politics have changed, huh…”) or blames the kids, their cultural decadence (really, students today are more “decadent” than they were in the 1960s? Not sure of that…) or, more deviously, maps one’s own political perversity on to the student body today (me as a kid = students in the 1960s / me as a grownup who writes for TNR = students circa now).

I think all of these answers are lazy and/or constructed in bad faith – some worse than others. What do I think is the issue? Personally, I think it’s the pressures (both real and perceived, fantasized) of the labor market. The perceived diligence and persistence that it takes to stay ahead of the “acceptable life” curve (which of course varies depending on the university we’re talking about – what is an acceptable end for many of my students would represent a catastrophic collapse to most Harvard students). Constant self-monitoring, constant presentation-of-self or anticipation thereof on the market of work and life and status, a grating sense that only the visible people matter is the name of the game. In particular, those students who might be the most likely candidates to participate in or even lead a protest movement – those in the humanities and social sciences – are haunted by a sense that everything worth doing is becoming increasingly impossible to do (collapse of the art market, collapse of the market for creative writing, rationalizing constriction of academia, etc etc) and thus in order to escape the soft hellishness of the cubicle, they need to keep their eyes on the prize.

This is an extremely worried generation of college students. Do you know how many nervous collapses (with hospitalization) happen in my undergraduate classes a semester? I’m teaching a single class of 45 undergrads this semester, and I’ve had 3 psychiatric hospitializations. I think, for reasons both real and not, students today are too stressed and anxious about their futures to worry about anything at all other than their school work, their internships, and the improbability that they will get to live the life that they would like to live.

The club tables that Kazin sees on the quad are an echo of the clubs they joined or led in high school. The spirit of protest has been pressured into the form of CV fodder; there is no time or energy for revolt save as an “after-school activity,” a hobby.

How do I know? Because the same logic structures my own life and work. Obviously, obviously. I am terrified of losing what I have, or not getting what I ultimately want while simultaneously being incredibly disheartened at the absurdity and issuelessness of what it is that I do. Pseudonymous blogging is my after-school activity; it has likely the same use-value as plastering anti-war posters on the designated placarding walls on campus.

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March 2, 2007 at 1:03 pm

4 Responses

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  1. Don’t you think–in terms of Iraq at least–that couldthe absence of a draft makes current conflict seem much further removed from the students’ lives than Vietnam must have been. In the Vietnam era, worrying about ever having the chance at a career meant, first, saving yourself from war, a fear which be readily channeled into more civic-minded social protest.


    March 2, 2007 at 4:09 pm

  2. Oh, of course. Yes. But then when you add in the question of student deferment in, in becomes a bit more complex, doesn’t it?


    March 3, 2007 at 12:22 am

  3. Hi. Just passing through, like your blog, added it to my blogroll at Commie Curmudgeon. I’ve got some comments here – probably a little lengthy (sorry about that), but sometimes I find it harder to comment in a briefer way, especially on some subjects…

    I haven’t been enrolled in a real, official university since the early ’80s, when I graduated from college. But I got involved somewhat in the anarchist wing of the “anti-globalization” movement in the ’90s, and I was kind of impressed at how much youth and student involvement there was in anti-capitalist protest. It seemed to me that there was a much bigger window for youth opposition to the mainstream leadership, hegemony or even capitalism than there had been when I went to college in the early ’80s. But, I guess that window sort of closed again…

    I have mixed feelings about the attempt to revive SDS for the new youth… For one thing, there’s too much ’60s nostalgia here, and young people, like everyone else, should think about trying to come up with new forms of opposition and maybe even correct the flaws that became apparent in the groups of the past.

    Also, I agree completely that, when you look at the larger historical picture, protest and opposition does not necessarily have to be initiated by, or centered upon, the youth. It seems to me in the present situation that it would be much more effective to form protest groups around economic and class issues. If there is a youth group initiating protest, it might draw more attention and bring in more participants if it is centered around an economic/class issue that particularly affects the youth. This would address some of the problems that you talk about. And, there have been examples of this sort of combination happening in other parts of the world – like the CPE protests in France.

    I think one reason that protest maybe isn’t so appealing is that protest as we know it at present in the U.S. is completely ineffective, not to mention boring… By contrast, the anti-glob protests that did bring in so many young people were both innovative and exciting, especially on the anarchist side. But, of course, the “movement” was very limited and flawed and imploded much faster than even the ’60s groups. And, the state response to any kind of civil disobedience or hint of direct action was extreme. (A lot of people like to blame 9-11 for that part, but it was like this for many months before 9-11.)

    Of course, kids got shot on campus in the ’60s and things got plenty brutal here and there… But there has been so much technology and force brought in at the protests I’ve been to just to stop anything effective from even developing, and it hasn’t helped that there’s also been a lot of internal repression within protest movements, i.e., attempts to stifle, or at least create distance from, the more active element, more than a little of which has been initiated by older leftists.

    Ironically, the more active element has, indeed, mainly been comprised of youth. But that could be because they’re just more physically energectic and healthy and don’t have to worry as much about not having health insurance (not only because of greater physical resilience but also because of the fact that their parents’ insurance will cover them and/or the colleges will cover them, etc.).

    It’s a shame that these hard practical considerations are getting in the way of protest but, looking at it from the other side, maybe that means that when opposition arises it will be more out of dire necessity and therefore, perhaps, with greater lasting power than something arising out of strictly youth-based rebellion.

    Richard S.

    March 3, 2007 at 11:11 pm

  4. Thanks, Richard, for the helpful comment!


    March 7, 2007 at 9:37 pm

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