The last weeks of the fall semester were uneasy ones on many campuses as students angrily protested the police killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice. We can pretend that we didn’t really know what happened in these cases: parse the Ferguson, Mo., grand-jury testimony, ignore the video of Staten Island police taking Garner down in a choke hold, or speculate on what happened in the two seconds that elapsed between the arrival of police at a Cleveland playground and the shooting of 12-year-old Rice. But the students who reacted furiously to these events did know—sometimes because of the very classes we teach—that these latest deaths were one with a long history of white violence against people of African descent in this country. Don’t tell us to go back to business as usual, our students demanded as they blocked traffic, disrupted meetings, staged teach-ins, and walked out of late-semester classes.
At many colleges, my own included, students scrutinized their own campuses, pointing to institutional failures including the woefully small number of African-American students and faculty of color. While many faculty shared our students’ anger at endemic racism, we also reacted with dismay when their protests highlighted their privilege, when their actions turned into bullying. On my campus, students circulated a petition demanding that because of these events, no student should be graded below a C for the semester. Protesters disrupted classes, some of which were in the midst of discussing Ferguson, insisting that their peers join the demonstrations and labeling as racist and worse those who didn’t. They have also demanded that all faculty undertake “anti-oppression training.”
Faculty of a certain age witnessed these actions with a complex feeling of déjà vu. In the fall of 1964, as my classmates and I began our first year at colleges across the country, the Free Speech Movement lit up Berkeley. Our four years at university were punctuated by continual demonstrations for civil rights and against the Vietnam War. We graduated within weeks of the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. More than 16,000 U.S. soldiers died in the war that year, more than an estimated 200,000 North Vietnamese were killed. “Shut it down!” became the spring semester’s perennial cry.
We were bitterly angry at the inhumanity of the endless war and the aching persistence of racism. We engaged in countless protest actions, many of which I still feel proud of, some of which I now think back on with embarrassment and shame. We marched to end the war, but our anti-draft campaigns revealed as much about our own privilege as about our anti-imperialist politics. We, college-educated white boys, weren’t gonna fight in any wars no more, but we didn’t think much about who would be fighting them in a future non-conscription military, nor of the price they, or the country, would pay in current and future conflicts.
The wave of anger that washed over U.S. campuses swept away college presidents and parietal hours, gender-segregated dorms, standardized curricula, most single-sex colleges, the exclusive hold of the Western canon, and much else, although it didn’t end U.S. military adventures abroad or smash racism at home. And now, 50 years later, we are wondering whether history will repeat itself, whether we are on the cusp of a new movement that will shake the windows and rattle the walls of higher education. Will Ferguson be the turning point?
There is much that we former student protesters and now tenured faculty admire in the audacity of the current generation of student activists. But we are disheartened by unrecognized entitlements and the bullying behaviors that, just as in our own earlier protests, threaten to become one with that which they criticize. Student protests have shut down speakers at Rutgers, Smith, Brandeis, Berkeley, Wesleyan, and elsewhere; a “call out” culture born on the Internet has taken a seat in our classrooms. Students well versed in specific discourses, particularly of race, class and gender analysis, often will use this proficiency to police the language of those less adept. An unwillingness to engage with competing viewpoints has become commonplace on many, particularly elite, campuses, and students have demanded that materials deemed offensive or “triggering” be removed from course syllabi.
College presidents have been tentative in their responses to this welling up of student protest, joining the die-ins, bending end-of-semester rules, and struggling to do the right thing because, in many cases, they share much of the students’ anger. But it is the faculty’s job to respond, and the question is how.
To begin, we can identify with the seething alarm with which students view the world into which they will graduate. Ferguson and Staten Island are only the latest reminders that the American narrative of continual racial progress is deeply flawed, as is the account of an equal-opportunity society. Our students face an economic landscape unimaginable to radicals protesting “the establishment” in 1968. A single family (the Waltons, of Walmart fame) now controls as much wealth as the bottom 42 percent of the population combined. Restrictive voter-ID laws threaten to time-machine the poor back to an era of legal disenfranchisement. Our students’ college years have been marked by massive political dysfunction and economic crisis. They are angry, and they should be.
As faculty, then, we must co-create with our students an education that better prepares them in every way to challenge real threats to our democracy. But we can only do that by defending the core principles of humanistic and scientific inquiry, of community and critical engagement, which are the cornerstones of the educational enterprise. For too long the faculty have ignored this responsibility, absorbed in research, the search for grants, and demands of professional advancement, happy to relegate student “issues” to presidents and deans of students. Yet we are the ones who must advocate for the principles that sustain the learning environment.
Our students deserve to be supported when they respond passionately to the injustices they see. But we are not doing our jobs if we don’t challenge them when they abuse the values that sustain us. Indeed, they deserve no less.
Steven S. Volk is a professor of history and director of the Center for Teaching Innovation and Excellence at Oberlin College.