On the Poverty of Student Activism

A controversial op-ed at my notoriously liberal alma mater only lends more credence to the stereotype of the coddled American student.
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The Olin Library at Wesleyan University. (Photo: Joe Mabel/Flickr)

The Olin Library at Wesleyan University. (Photo: Joe Mabel/Flickr)

In 1966, a group of students at the University of Strasbourg, in France, published a pamphlet that would forever change the face of student activism. Titled De la Misère en Milieu Etudiant ("On the Poverty of Student Life"), the text was both a critique of, and a call to action for, the student activists who dotted university campuses across the United States and Europe. Being a student, the authors argued, is "a form of initiation" into the very systems of capitalism that campus activists purported to smash with their school-wide protests and sit-ins. The student, they wrote, "remains totally cut off from historical, individual and social reality. The student leads a double life, poised between his present status and the utterly separate future status into which he will one day be abruptly thrust." In short, the student is at her intellectual strongest when she is at her economic or political weakest—an arrangement that universities engender to extend the longevity of late capitalism. The current student activist, they concluded, is a total tool of the system.

The Strasbourg students distributed 10,000 copies of the pamphlet at the start of the academic year. It quickly earned outrage from international media. The Strasbourg student union was closed by court order shortly afterward, but De la Misère en Milieu Etudiant would also become a foundational text for the French and German students who occupied their respective universities, as part of the massive general strikes in May of 1968. The modern left-wing student activist, from anti-apartheid protestors to campus critics of the Iraq War, owe their intellectual legacy to that single pamphlet.

Being a student is "a form of initiation" into the very systems of capitalism that campus activists purported to smash with their school-wide protests and sit-ins.

Ironically, the lessons of De la Misère en Milieu Etudiant—that the student is a tool of the university microcosm, and that authentic activism takes place far beyond the boundaries of a campus—seems lost on one of the very campuses where it should matter most: my alma mater, Wesleyan University, the very model of "Stereotypical Ultraliberal Private University," progenitor of "PCU," and home of "naked dorms." While I went to Wesleyan for its embrace of a long tradition of activism and intellectual criticism, a spat over a recent op-ed exposes a reality of intellectual poverty in the worst possible way.

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On September 14th, a staff writer at the Argus, Wesleyan's student newspaper, published an opinion item on "why Black Lives Matter isn't what you think." The story questioned the merits of the civil rights movement that's been challenging the criminal justice system for more than a year: "[I]s the movement itself actually achieving anything positive?" the writer asks. "Does it have the potential for positive change?" Naturally, the student body melted down: According to university president Michael Roth, "students not only have expressed their disagreement with the op-ed but have demanded apologies, a retraction and have even harassed the author and the newspaper's editors." The two co-editors of the paper subsequently published an apology, stating that they "discussed the piece and its flaws with many students" and that "these conversations have crystallized for us the immense impact of our editorial decisions. The opinions expressed in the op-ed do not reflect those of The Argus, and we want to affirm that as community members, we stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement."

This is all well and good, I guess, but here's where things get out of control. During a weekly open forum at the Sunday meeting of the Wesleyan Student Assembly on September 20th, members of the student body's governing organ reportedly discussed a petition not just to boycott, but to effectively de-fund the Argus, by denying the publication resources from the student activities fund managed by the WSA's Student Budget Committee. Their argument? The Argus "neglects to provide a safe space for the voices of students of color and we are doubtful that it will in the future." Among the demands in the petition, per the Argus itself: "[A] required once-per-semester Social Justice/Diversity training for all student publications," and "open space on the front page in the publication dedicated to marginalized groups/voices, specifying that if no submissions are received, the Argus will print a section labeled 'for your voice.'" The petition will be the focus of a town hall meeting sponsored by the student government this Sunday. Here's what the heads of the WSA had to say about the controversy:

"Aidan and I ran last spring on the platform of bringing equity and inclusion to the very core of the WSA and furthermore, to every part of campus,"[WSA President Kate Cullen and Vice President Aidan Martinez] wrote in an email to the Argus. "In this vein, we are supportive of the push for a more equitable and inclusive Argus.... We hope that the cries for change from the students of color community will move The Argus's leadership to action."

"We know it's not easy," Cullen and Martinez's email continued. "This past spring, we initiated a complete constitutional and tonal restructuring of the WSA to elevate marginalized and historically unrepresented voices that we felt so desperately needed to be heard on campus. Through genuine and dedicated work, the Argus can make this change as well. And for this reason, Aidan and I stand in solidarity with the student of color community in their efforts to make their voices heard."

There are very legitimate, and I believe earnest, concerns driving this reaction. Diversity in media absolutely matters in shaping how stories are told, how narratives are shaped, and how the public interprets stories with various overlapping identities. But to be clear: Because someone wrote an op-ed that questioned the efficacy of a civil rights movement, the entire student newspaper's editorial independence—let alone future—is in jeopardy. By threatening the publication through its funding source, this small group of student activists set a depressing precedent: that an ostensible institution of free speech on campus can be held for ransom by any cadre of students with a grievance, legitimate or not. How does this serve the broader university community, or even Wesleyan's long-standing tradition of rigorous intellectual inquiry, in any way, shape, or form?

This is, for lack of a better term, a gross over-reaction. For one, the Argus is not the New York Times. It publishes 1,000 print copies twice each week, with a largely ignored distribution in the student center and a few other locations. Anecdotally, it isn't nearly as popular as Wesleying, the student-run blogIt's a piddling college paper that occasionally does fine work (like breaking the story of the university's lawsuit against a former investment officer for $3 million) but mainly serves to provide students with newsroom experience in the absence of a journalism program. There are also much better reasons to question the Argus's funding breakdown—why publish twice a week and not once?—than ideological inconsistency.

To attack the Argus as a powerful institution of privilege and white supremacy is as asinine as it is futile.

If you did want to make your voice heard, it's not as if the barriers to entry are very high: In my experience, the Argus will print basically anything. I once wrote a Wespeak (like an op-ed) about getting drunk at a soccer game. I wrote about shredded wheat once too. This is the whole point of Wespeaks. To write for the Argus as an op-ed contributor does not require an astronomically high investment in time or energy that could plausibly serve as barriers to free expression from a marginalized group. It certainly does chew up tons of time for paid staffers, which serves as a disincentive for people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds (although, according to an Argus staffer, the paper had more paid positions before the student government itself slashed their budget).

If the worry is "safe spaces"—as it certainly was, according to minutes from the WSA's Sunday forum on the paper—it's not as if the Argus has a monopoly on campus discourse. Wesleyan had the Internet when I matriculated in 2005 (Wesleying began as a community space in 2006); it's not as if Twitter has suddenly been banned. To push for diversity is fine, especially for those who can't afford to participate, but to attack the Argus as a powerful institution of privilege and white supremacy is as asinine as it is futile. Plenty of student groups who couldn't care less for the twice-weekly Argus receive student activities funding for literary publications like, say, the Ankh, Wesleyan's publication for students of color; or Hermes, for politics and cultural criticism, or Ostranenie; for creative writing; and so on. Getting funding from the student activities budget to build a platform for particular voices or bring a band to campus is not difficult—it just takes effort.

Besides, asking the Student Budget Committee to take a stand and make moral or ethical judgements in its funding is deeply, deeply problematic. Do we really want a governmental (well, pretend governmental) body incorporating that kind of moral calculus when it disperses funds, let alone using the threat of de-funding to curb activities it doesn't enjoy? Doesn’t that sound a lot like Congress holding up Planned Parenthood funding? I don't see too much of a difference.

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The worst part of this sad, angry backlash is that it only lends credence to the argument about the coddling of the American college student. Microaggressions and trigger warnings are the new battlefield for the American culture wars, and they deserve discussion and study. In fact, some research suggests that confronting, rather than avoiding, triggering situations is the best way to overcome PTSD—although many students don't see it that way, and hey, who's to argue with subjectivity? But this sort of hypersensitivity "presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm," argue Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in the Atlantic. "The ultimate aim, it seems, is to turn campuses into 'safe spaces' where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable. And more than the last, this movement seeks to punish anyone who interferes with that aim, even accidentally." This is a scarily accurate description of the campaign against the Argus.

"Censorship diminishes true diversity of thinking; vigorous debate enlivens and instructs."

Wesleyan President Michael Roth, to his credit, seems to recognize that the university's activism is heading toward a singularity of self-parody. "Debates can raise intense emotions, but that doesn't mean that we should demand ideological conformity because people are made uncomfortable," he wrote in response to the controversy. "As members of a university community, we always have the right to respond with our own opinions, but there is no right not to be offended. We certainly have no right to harass people because we don't like their views. Censorship diminishes true diversity of thinking; vigorous debate enlivens and instructs."

But here, then, in the tension between free speech and "safe spaces" at my beloved Wesleyan, is the true poverty of student life on college campuses that De la Misère en Milieu Etudiant sought to combat some 50 years ago. It's not a literal poverty; the economic "poverty" of students is always somewhat temporary, with bright prospects and bigger dollars looming after graduation—despite the crushing yoke of student loans and taxes that lies beyond campus.

Rather, it's an intellectual poverty, a sense that this narrow activism focused in hyper-liberal universities is both intellectually incoherent and marred by the contradictions of the university system. Arguing to eliminate an institution of free speech is biting off your nose to spite your face, but it's also a concession to the control the students at Strasbourg warned against. It's righteous play-activism, with resolutions and working groups and jousting with the administration in a tiny contained university ecosystem designed to keep students from doing something thoughtful and consequential.

"In a period when more and more young people are breaking free from moral prejudices and family authority as they are subjected to blunt, undisguised exploitation at the earliest age, the student clings to his tame and irresponsible 'protracted infancy,'" the Strasbourg students wrote. "Belated adolescent crises may provoke occasional arguments with his family, but he uncomplainingly accepts being treated as a baby by the various institutions that govern his daily life." Now tell me if this sounds familiar—and how deliciously ironic, given Wesleyan's collective freakout over the ban on "chalking" just over a decade ago.

Should those students who want to de-fund the Argus ever decide to seek actual, real-world change, they should do it beyond the confines of the campus. March in the streets of Middletown, like your classmates did last December following the Eric Garner and Michael Brown verdicts. Protest in the streets of Boston, or New York, or Washington, D.C. Sit in Roth's offices. But to attack your fellow students over a single op-ed you don't agree with is to remind the world exactly why, as the Strasbourg student union wrote, "the student is the most universally despised creature in France"—and why the student still holds that position today. If that's too hard for you, write an op-ed for the Argus.

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