“Why Aren’t Students Raising Hell?” asks David Masciotra. “Why aren’t American students out on the streets?” Excellent questions. And there’s no single answer.
Masciotra’s article is mostly a lead-up to those queries, explaining why students might want to revolt. First he dwells on New York University as an exemplary case, starting with a review of a recent NYU faculty report from earlier this year, “The Art of the Gouge” (which FTTE readers know well). Next Masciotra touched on another report, “The One Percent at State U,” published this year by the Institute for Policy Studies. The same interlinked themes appear: escalating tuition and student debt, high compensation for upper leadership, the transformation of the faculty from tenure to precarity, all topics familiar to readers of this blog, not to mention anyone paying attention to American higher education in the 21st century.
How do students react in the face of such a transformed experience, “as if Charles Dickens and Franz Kafka collaborated” on its creation?
Unfortunately, students seem like passive participants in their own liquidation. An American student protest timeline for 2014-’15, compiled by historian Angus Johnston, reveals that most demonstrations and rallies focused on police violence, and sexism. Those issues should inspire vigilance and activism, but only 10 out of 160 protests targeted tuition hikes for attack, and only two of those 10 events took place outside the state of California.
So why is this? The author leaves us without an answer, leaving it up to us to determine. I must say that I’m delighted Masciotra resists the loathsome “kids these days are coddled” meme, and doesn’t raise the “kids are narcotized by digital thingees” gag.
I posed this question on Twitter and Facebook, and received many thoughts, some of which echoed my own:
- Students are too anxious about injuring their reputations, especially in the age of ubiquitous media capture and social media, not to mention a still-difficult labor market. Footage of you occupying a president’s office isn’t likely to impress an employer.
- The combination of stresses (debt, malemployment, life steps deferred) is too debilitating. Alison Furlong mentions the extra stress of working while taking classes.
- The ideology of revolt simply isn’t there, because another ideology is in its place. As Bill Tozier tweeted, “the quick answer is: “‘They still believe in meritocracy'”.
- For traditional-age students, some proportion don’t fully grasp the situation, either because it’s too complex or they’re too young to be presently footing the bill. As Daniel Luntzel tweeted pithily, “Quicker answer: they aren’t the ones paying (and these prices seem normal to them – boiling frog and all that)”. Indeed, there hasn’t been a dramatic incident around tuition and fees, no single telegenic spike. Steady, long-term curves aren’t newsworthy.
- On a related note, when it comes to traditional-age students, I wonder if their refusal to storm administration buildings is partly the result of teaching tolerance to them and their predecessors for decades.
- When it comes to adult learners, I suspect a different calculus is at work. Some are simply too busy with work and family to take to the streets. Others have shopped classes and schools are may just accept that it’s a pricey market, like housing or health care. When online learning is less expensive, they can turn to those providers instead, and they seem even less vulnerable to protest.
- I fear many students are disconnected from democracy. As I’ve argued before, we may be living in an age of extractive democracy, where the game is rigged by business and state. An awareness of this may not elicit open rebellion, but resignation. Stephen Downes on Facebook offered a different take, arguing that students have decided demonstrations don’t accomplish much. Instead, students either devote themselves to the hard work of changing policies, or rely on their peers to do so.
If that’s accurate, perhaps we’ll see students start supporting Bernie Sanders, as the candidate who has put forward the most significant student relief proposals. I don’t know if that electoral support will translate to student actions on campus.
In the meantime, the costs of rising up are just too high.