October 23, 2017
JCC's Focus Author for this quarter is Barbara Jacoby, University at Maryland. Her JCC article is "The New Student Activism: Supporting Students as Agents of Social Change" in the February 2017, Vol. 18, No. 1 issue.
Below, she responds to questions posed by JCC co-editor Jon Dalton:
What is meant by "new" student activism? How does it differ from past forms of student activism?
I have been thinking a lot about this. It seems to me that “back then” (and I mean my undergraduate days in 1967-1971 and thereabouts), student activism was about broad national issues such as civil rights, the draft, the war in Vietnam, and university participation in the military-industrial complex. Today’s student activism indeed addresses undeniably critical issues like pervasive institutional racism, educational inequality, sexual assault, crushing student debt, abortion, sustainability, and other issues of social justice. Several commentators have noted that recent student activism is more localized, focusing on how these issues are related to the affairs, environment, curriculum, and funding of a particular school, college, or university. Others, including Todd Gitlin, a professor at Columbia and prominent historian of 1960s activism, have noted that today’s student activists focus on what seem like “minor irritations that one can and should live with: a conservative speaker, or a letter from a faculty member objecting to guidance on Halloween costumes [at Yale], microaggressions” (2017).
Gitlin, T. Conservatives say campus speech is under threat. That’s been true for most of history. Washington Post. August 11, 2017. [https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/conservatives-say-campus-speech-is-under-threat-thats-been-true-for-most-of-history/2017/08/11/6aa959fa-7c4b-11e7-9d08-b79f191668ed_story.html?tid=ss_mail&utm_term=.f65e8d24c75f].
When does student activism cross the line of free speech and begin to silence or restrict the beliefs and expressions of others?
In my view, this is the hottest issue related to student activism right now. We are bombarded by seemingly endless national media coverage, from both liberal and conservative sources, about free speech and political correctness on college campuses. At question is whether certain forms of speech do such psychological harm to students that administrators have an obligation to eradicate them. And if they fail to do so, whether students have an obligation to step in and do so themselves as has happened on multiple campuses with multiple speakers, including Ann Coulter, Charles Murray, Richard Spencer, and Milo Yiannopoulos. Some of these protests have turned violent. Survey results released by the Brookings Institution in September (although the findings have been challenged because the opt-in nature of the sample) added fuel to the rhetorical fire with their indications that many college students don't understand the First Amendment and that a significant minority of students (19 percent of all students and 30 percent of male students) said it would be acceptable for students to use violence to prevent a controversial speaker from speaking. I encourage us to consider questions including: How can we help students value their right to disagree but to avoid polarizing, bitter rants and violence? How can we work with students to view free speech as a way to sharpen their thinking? How can we help students learn that in order to disagree well it is essential to come to controversy with an open mind, to think deeply, and understand well?
Please respond below to Barbara’s replies to these questions with your comments relating to bridging worldview differences.
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