A New Student Left?
May 10, 2012 10:29 am
By Kevin Mattson
I guess it’s easy for those on the left to get excited by the recent Occupy protests. When the hell was the last time that May Day earned publicity in America? Most Americans probably don’t even know the damn history of the holiday. We’re more used to soggy potato salad at Labor Day picnics, if anything at all connected to the long history of union struggles in this country. So now the smoke clears from the feisty protest marches and restated alliances between certain elements of the labor movement and the Occupy Wall Street activists. I was no witness to those actions. I happen to occupy (literally) Ohio. I am far from Cleveland, where the recent terror wing of the anarchist movement got busted for dreaming up schemes to blow up a bridge (or so it’s reported). I am no big city boy but rather live in Appalachian Ohio, far from the sensational news cycles.
But let me offer a small story out of my own small world that I think suggests another place to build some confidence about the future possibilities of the Left in our times of austerity and constriction. This is not the story of the Occupy movement. It’s a story about a small number of college students. It’s a story about an immediate loss that still offers some reason for hope, if we understand it right.
Over the last few months, a small group of student activists protested a 3.5 percent tuition increase at Ohio University (where I teach). This was an increase that fell on the heels of previous tuition jack-ups. The students replicated the feel and imagery of New Left campus protesters from some fifty years ago. Their posters always showed an iconic raised and clenched fist. They called for sit-ins in the central administrative building. They demanded students join them via chalk-drawn commands on sidewalks. When none of this seemed to do much, they decided to occupy the trustee meeting where the up-or-down vote on the tuition rise would take place.
They were silent at the meeting and simply held up signs. According to the local student newspaper, two signs read: “With the amount of debt I will have it will not be financially responsible of me to have children” and “I make $98.18 a week, look me in the face and tell me that I can afford $10,215 for tuition.”
That last sign jarred me. I hadn’t heard that kind of moral and political language from undergraduate students for a long time. I assume that it tweaked the conscience of the trustees at least a little bit. Of course, not enough to make them vote in the students’ favor. They voted for the tuition hike, arguing that they were pinched by state cutbacks. The students attending dropped their signs and walked away in frustration.
So why make so much of it? There was no immediate gain, but of course, the same can be said of the Occupy May Day protests. If we think historically and politically about the action of this small student Left, I’d say we should recognize the following:
• This small protest joined together moral condemnation with self-interest in a way that’s been rare on the left for a long time. That’s especially true for the student Left in this country. I am always amazed how historians rarely if ever discuss any protests during the sixties that took aim at the costs of college for students. We hear about the free speech movement and protests against the war or for black studies, but never about something as self-interested as the personal costs of college attendance. The student protests from the 1980s (those I remember first hand) usually focused on issues of apartheid (divestment) or curricular disputes. This new student activism might find a way to do something rather difficult: join up moral concerns with pocketbook issues.
• These students were ruly and civil in their behavior. They remained focused on a clear-cut issue and didn’t get tangential. They didn’t talk in grandiose ideas about income inequality but about how a single issue made an impact in their lives.
• Their language was that of the middle class—about having a family (that age-long dream) they can afford or being able to find a level of comfort after college. They are the faces of those Americans who fear for the future, who wonder if the postwar middle class has been sunk into oblivion.
• Their small local cause has already connected to national policy disputes. Consider that Mitt Romney—a man whose every position seems based on opportunism—has broken with the Republican Party’s hostility to keeping down the costs of student loans. The students holding the signs at the trustee meetings would not find it difficult to work their way up from the local to the national: from a call to arrest the tuition hike at Ohio University to a larger vision of keeping down the costs of student loans via tax increases on wealthy Americans. Or at least I don’t think they would.
This student Left also represents a more effective way to press back against the mildewed right-wing attacks on academe. The real problem with higher education is not a bunch of liberal professors turning kids against their families’ traditional values—an accusation that Rick Santorum trotted out recently and that stretches back to Joseph McCarthy’s bellowing antics during the 1950s—but diminishing state support, which makes college unaffordable to future members of the middle class. The students pointed to a concrete issue with moral and self-interested motivations behind it. I hope those students will return in the near future. They have promise far beyond the small actions they have already committed.