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Aviva Chomsky, Will the Millennial Movement Rebuild the Ivory Tower or Be Crushed by It?

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

Much of our future is reliably unpredictable, and what more so than the moments when mass movements suddenly break out and sweep across our world? Who expected, for example, that for perhaps the first time in history hundreds of thousands of people would hit the streets of U.S. cities and towns -- and millions the global streets from London and Barcelona to Sydney and Jakarta -- in early 2003 to protest the coming invasion of Iraq, a war, that is, that hadn't even begun? Or that such a movement would essentially vanish not long after that war was predictably launched?

Who imagined that, in September 2011, a small group of youthful protesters, settling into Zuccotti Park, an obscure square near Wall Street in downtown Manhattan, would "occupy" it and so the American imagination in such a way that "the 1%" and "the 99%" became part of our everyday language; Wall Street (as it hadn't been for decades) a reviled site; and "inequality" part of the national conversation rather than just the national reality? Who imagined in the moment before it happened that such a movement, such a moment, would then sweep the country and the world, that streets and squares in American cities and those around the world would be "occupied" and that global inequality would become, and remain, an issue of import?

Who imagined that a small number of environmentalists running an obscure organization called 350.org would help spark a climate-change movement that would spread globally in a startling fashion, mount a large demonstration in Washington and others across the planet, venture into the Arctic and by kayak into the waters of the American West, and actually stop the building of a pipeline slated to carry the carbon-dirtiest of energy sources from now-ravaged Alberta, Canada, to the American Gulf Coast, and -- with a growing divestment movement and other activities -- put the fear of god into the most profitable and influential corporations on the planet?

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And who imagined that the shooting of a young black man in a place no one (outside of Missouri) had ever heard of and the death-by-choking of another black man on the streets of New York City, events that were, in the annals of American policing, hardly out of the ordinary, would propel a protest movement whose name couldn't sum up its goals better -- Black Lives Matter -- to national prominence or that this would, in turn, help spark a movement of millennials, discussed today by TomDispatch regular Avi Chomsky, that would sweep college campuses nationwide?

Is there anything stranger than what in the world, on occasion, gets into us human beings, what suddenly makes us so ornery that we sometimes stand up to overwhelming power in defense of convictions that, until moments before, we didn't even know would occupy us in such a way? And perhaps nothing is more useful than the unpredictability of such moments, such movements. Otherwise how would they ever catch power off guard? Tom

The Battle for the Soul of American Higher Education
Student Protest, the Black Lives Matter Movement, and the Rise of the Corporate University
By Aviva Chomsky

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During the past academic year, an upsurge of student activism, a movement of millennials, has swept campuses across the country and attracted the attention of the media. From coast to coast, from the Ivy League to state universities to small liberal arts colleges, a wave of student activism has focused on stopping climate change, promoting a living wage, fighting mass incarceration practices, supporting immigrant rights, and of course campaigning for Bernie Sanders.

Both the media and the schools that have been the targets of some of these protests have seized upon certain aspects of the upsurge for criticism or praise, while ignoring others. Commentators, pundits, and reporters have frequently trivialized and mocked the passion of the students and the ways in which it has been directed, even as universities have tried to appropriate it by promoting what some have called "neoliberal multiculturalism." Think of this as a way, in particular, of taming the power of the present demands for racial justice and absorbing them into an increasingly market-oriented system of higher education.

In some of their most dramatic actions, students of color, inspired in part by the Black Lives Matter movement, have challenged the racial climate at their schools. In the process, they have launched a wave of campus activism, including sit-ins, hunger strikes, demonstrations, and petitions, as well as emotional, in-your-face demands of various sorts. One national coalition of student organizations, the Black Liberation Collective, has called for the percentage of black students and faculty on campus to approximate that of blacks in the society. It has also called for free tuition for black and Native American students, and demanded that schools divest from private prison corporations. Other student demands for racial justice have included promoting a living wage for college employees, reducing administrative salaries, lowering tuitions and fees, increasing financial aid, and reforming the practices of campus police. These are not, however, the issues that have generally attracted the attention either of media commentators or the colleges themselves.

Instead, the spotlight has been on student demands for cultural changes at their institutions that focus on deep-seated assumptions about whiteness, sexuality, and ability. At some universities, students have personalized these demands, insisting on the removal of specific faculty members and administrators. Emphasizing a politics of what they call "recognition," they have also demanded that significant on-campus figures issue public apologies or acknowledge that "black lives matter." Some want universities to implement in-class "trigger warnings" when difficult material is being presented and to create "safe spaces" for marginalized students as a sanctuary from the daily struggle with the mainstream culture. By seizing upon and responding to these (and only these) student demands, university administrators around the country are attempting to domesticate and appropriate this new wave of activism.

In the meantime, right-wing commentators have depicted students as coddled, entitled, and enemies of free speech. The libertarian right has launched a broad media critique of the current wave of student activism. Commentators have been quick to dismiss student protesters as over-sensitive and entitled purveyors of "academic victimology." They lament the "coddling of the American mind." The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf has termed students "misguided" in their protests against racist language, ideas, and assumptions, their targeting of "microaggression" (that is, unconscious offensive comments) and insensitivity, and their sometimes highly personal attacks against those they accuse. One of the most vocal critics of the new campus politics, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, argues that such rampant "liberalism" and "political correctness" violate academic freedom and freedom of speech. (In this, they are in accord with the liberal American Civil Liberties Union. Free speech advocates Daphne Patai and the ACLU's Harvey Silvergate, for example, bemoan a new diversity requirement at the University of Massachusetts for its "politicization of education.")

In a response that, under the circumstances, might at first seem surprising, college administrators have been been remarkably open to some of these student demands -- often the very ones derided by the right. In this way, the commentators and the administrators have tended to shine a bright light on what is both personal and symbolic in the new politics of the student protesters, while ignoring or downplaying their more structural and economically challenging desires and demands.

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The Neoliberal University

University administrators have been particularly amenable to student demands that fit with current trends in higher education. Today's neoliberal university is increasingly facing market pressures like loss of state funding, privatization, rising tuition, and student debt, while promoting a business model that emphasizes the managerial control of faculty through constant "assessment," emphasis on "accountability," and rewards for "efficiency." Meanwhile, in a society in which labor unions are constantly being weakened, the higher education labor force is similarly being -- in the term of the moment -- "flexibilized" through the weakening of tenure, that once ironclad guarantee of professorial lifetime employment, and the increased use of temporary adjunct faculty.

In this context, universities are scrambling to accommodate student activism for racial justice by incorporating the more individualized and personal side of it into increasingly depoliticized cultural studies programs and business-friendly, market-oriented academic ways of thinking. Not surprisingly, how today's students frame their demands often reflects the environment in which they are being raised and educated. Postmodern theory, an approach which still reigns in so many liberal arts programs, encourages textual analysis that reveals hidden assumptions encoded in words; psychology has popularized the importance of individual trauma; and the neoliberal ideology that has come to permeate so many schools emphasizes individual behavior as the most important agent for social change. Add together these three strands of thought, now deeply embedded in a college education, and injustice becomes a matter of the wrongs individuals inflict on others at a deeply personal level. Deemphasized are the policies and structures that are built into how society (and the university) works.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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