I’ve seen a lot of hand-wringing about college and university students over the past few years, from a kind of sneering worry over trigger warnings in class to pious denouncements of what they see as attacks on free speech.
But I don’t buy it. When I look at protests and actions led by students of color around the country, I see the difficult birth of what I hope will be a better future.
It’s the sensational stories that pierce the fog of our drowsy national consciousness. At Wesleyan, a poorly-thought-out opinion piece in the school’s newspaper became a lightning rod for protests, ending in demands that the paper be muzzled and funding cut. At Yale, an email to students about offensive Halloween costumes and freedom of expression was the catalyst for protests led by black students and joined by the school’s high-profile football team ousted the university president — only to be overshadowed by students and faculty menacing and grabbing members of the media to keep them out of a “safe space” for protesters.
It’s easy to dismiss the protests as nothing more than entitled students demanding unreasonable things. But that’s not the truth of it — not even close.
Protests and difficult conversations about diversity, inclusion, race, and who gets to matter and feel safe, have been happening everywhere in higher education. Without exception, they are led by students of color fed up with systematic oppression and racism. It feels like this generation is experiencing a political and social awakening my own generation never had.
It’s bracing, like the crisp winds and sharp blue skies of fall after a long, humid summer.
When I was in college in the late 1990s, student protests seemed like a waste of time, something only the uncomfortably passionate ever did. Campus protest was this thing our parents’ generation had done, and we believed they’d failed. The world wouldn’t change no matter what we did, so we cloaked ourselves in apathy and irony and hoped that our degrees would land us jobs we could use to pay off our massive student loans.
But this is a different generation, one that’s grown up online having conversations about identity, power, inclusion, oppression, and more. They’ve brought those conversations into the classroom, and, inspired by Ferguson protests and the Black Lives Matter movement, out into the quads and streets of their campuses.
Sometimes they make bad choices, sure. For instance, I get why students of color are so suspicious of a media that has, time and again, sensationalized and distorted their stories. But trying to exclude, demonize, and even shut down the media is short-sighted; the most successful protests and movements use the media instead of facing off against it. Think of the photos and stories that came out of Ferguson, and the mistakes the police there made in trying to keep the media out.
Sure, there’s an argument about free expression to be made, and that’s important. But why is that more important to those of us on the outside than racial equality and freedom from oppression?
I think students will have to wrestle with those questions about free speech. I think they will. And I think their answers may not be our answers, but that’s OK, too. Things change.
The important thing I see in these protests and the communities forming around them is the realization that the needs of marginalized people in this country should actually be heard and seen. This isn’t about censorship or speech codes or any of that, but about respect, understanding, and, on its most basic level, kindness and decency.
The big question here is all about what the university is actually for. My generation bought into the idea that it’s about preparing a student for the workforce, and about getting a job. I’ve seen a lot of commentators claim that it’s about debate and being exposed to new ideas that you don’t necessarily agree with. And both of those things are valid. But universities should really be about building the future by understanding and being critical of the past and present in all its complexity and sorrow. In short, we can learn from yesterday and today in order to make a better tomorrow.
My generation looked to technology to build the future, taking a pass on changing society. I hope this current generation rectifies that mistake. Maybe our pragmatism and their idealism can, together, help shape a better, fairer, kinder, and more just country.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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