A post over at the NYC gossip blog Gawker posed a rather strange question in regards to the recent student protests against the University of California budget cuts:
Why are college student protesters so annoying these days? (Were they always annoying, no matter what generation?) Seriously, I’m asking. I know I should feel good about youthful idealism and bright naive hopes that total overhaul is possible, but I don’t.
The author acknowledged that they are “fighting for something good” but found “the tactics and the attitude so irksome, so stubbornly pop-political and self-concerned.” He cited the disappointment of a group of students when they weren’t arrested for occupying a campus building as an example.
They wanted the outrage and the belligerence and the fighting. So they could get a louder point across? Yes, probably. But also, maybe, so they could have war stories and battle scars, so they could feel the selfish swell of having done something monumental and risky and public. “Weren’t you one of those kids,” awed anti-Zionist freshmen will whisper to these now wizened and graying seniors. “Yeah, you know” they’ll say, propping a ratty black utility soldier boot up on the dumpster dived coffee table. “It just needed to be done.”
This characterization of what might have been going through the students’ minds is a bit unfair, if not unrealistic. It seems highly unlikely that someone motivated entirely by a selfish desire for glory would commit themselves to an action that could result in being pepper sprayed and beaten by police, which is exactly what happened to student protesters at UCLA. The UC Berkeley students who occupied Wheeler Hall faced even worse in the form of rubber bullets. So if there were a few students upset about not being arrested, perhaps they can be forgiven. It’s not hard to imagine how preparing oneself for a harsh potential outcome might be a bit of a let down when it doesn’t come to pass.
Certainly there were faults with some of the student protests—vandalism, for one, which only ever works against the overall message. But, by and large, I think the students who took action against a 32 percent tuition raise and the loss of quality professors and programs should be commended for their efforts. I see nothing “irksome” or “stubbornly pop-political” with thousands of students risking personal welfare (and over 200 getting arrested) to oppose budget cuts caused by reckless spending and growth. Shouldn’t education be one of the last institutions to suffer from such stupidity?
It wouldn’t be wise to discount any student protest of this magnitude. History shows that they have been vital and necessary. Just look at the Free Speech Movement that took place at Berkeley 45 years ago. The last thing anyone would call it or its charasmatic leader, Mario Savio, is annoying. As he famously said, “There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious—makes you so sick at heart—that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part. You’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop.”