In the U.S. summer is winding down. Soon U.S. students will trek back to school, including college. Would that I was one of them, not because it would mean I was forty years younger – though that would be a nice turn of events – but because this is the first Fall semester in thirty years I have felt the desire to be scaling ivy walls and prowling campus corridors.
What’s coming to NYU, Wisconsin, SF State, MIT, Howard, Pepperdine, Morehouse, Purdue, Loyola? What’s coming to Drake, Kansas State, Rutgers, Boston University, University of Chicago, Duke, Berkeley, Kent State? What’s coming to Reed, Bucknell, Colombia, Vanderbilt, Austin, Evergreen, Concordia, Yale, Jackson State – and all the rest?
Tumult, turmoil, tension, and resistance? Rejection and revolt? That’s what ought to happen. It’s what I hope will happen.
Flash back to May 1970: Richard Nixon announced the invasion of Cambodia. Already intense campus unrest dramatically escalated. National guard shot to death four students at Kent State University. Campuses erupted. Two were killed and twelve wounded at Jackson State. About 2,000 students were arrested in the first half of May 1970. Campuses were declared in a state of emergency in Kentucky, Ohio, Michigan, and South Carolina. At least a third of the nation’s nearly 3,000 colleges had strikes. Over 80% of all colleges and universities had protests. Approximately four million students, half the country’s total, and 350,000 faculty members actively participated in strikes. Buildings were shut down. Highways were blocked. Campuses were closed. Nixon’s Scranton Commission reported that roughly three quarters of all students supported the strikes. Pollsters reported that within campuses alone over a million people claimed to favor revolution and called themselves revolutionaries. In early 1971 the New York Times reported that four out of ten students, about three million people, thought a revolution was needed in the United States. This upsurge and the civil rights and then black power movement, the women’s movement, the antiwar movement, and the youth rebellion behind it, together threatened the very fabric of society and thereby helped end a war and turn the country’s mentality inside out and upside down. Racism was under seige. Sexism was in retreat. Suburban culture was tottering. A gigantic war machine felt shackles. Even capitalism had cracks. But the desire to attain a better world did not last sufficiently long or grow sufficiently wide to replace Washington’s White House and Wall Street’s corporations which, instead, went on producing greed and domination. Capitalism’s institutional persistence slowly eroded and even devoured my generation’s aspirations for solidarity and self management.
Flash forward thirty five years to next week: Imagine students back on their campuses. Do they discuss what courses to take? Ways to hook up with new guys or gals? Upcoming athletic seasons? I’d be surprised if not, but I hope students’ also focus on war and peace. I hope they focus on New Orleans, and why calamities afflict the poor so much worse than all others. I hope they focus on why life in the world is so much less than it could be for the starving, the bombed, the unemployed, and for those working at jobs that rob dignity, stifle creativity, and subject so many souls to stupefying rule by others.I hope they even talk about working at elite jobs and having no time to live, no space to be humane, and no meaning beyond the next dollar. I hope students’ main topic this Fall is what they want out of life, spiritually, emotionally, intellectually, and yes, materially, and how they are going to get it consistent with their working hard for everyone else getting it too.
Imagine students asking why their curriculums produce ignorance about international relations, ignorance about market competition’s violations of solidarity, sagacity, and sustainability.
Imagine students deciding enough is enough. Maybe one particular student who wears a funny hat and has a history of being aloof, or perhaps one who looks straight as a commercial and was high school class most likely to have a million friends, will write a song about masters of the universe – and unseating them. Maybe another student will write about floods drowning people’s hopes, and about a rising tide of our own compassionate creation lifting people’s prospects. Maybe another student will write about resurgent racism and sullying sexism, and then about combative communalism and feminism and their time finally coming. And maybe students will hum the new tunes and sing the new lyrics – and rally, march, sit in, occupy, all while waving a big, solid fist.
Imagine students not just sending out emails to their friends and allies, but entering dorms and knocking on every door, initiating long talks, communicating carefully-collected information and debating patiently-constructed arguments that address not only war and poverty, but also positive prospects we prefer.
Imagine students earmarking fraternity and sorority members, athletes, and scholars, for conversation, debate, incitement, and recruitment. Imagine students come to see their campuses as places that should be churning out activists and dissent and come to see themselves as having no higher calling than making that campus-wide dissent happen.
Imagine students schooling themselves outside the narrow bounds of their colleges, learning that there is an alternative to cutthroat competition and teaching themselves to describe that alternative and to inspire others with it, to refine it, and especially to formulate and implement paths by which to attain it.
Imagine students, now sharing many views and much spirit, angry and also hopeful, sober and also laughing, sitting in dorms and dining areas forming campus organizations, or even campus chapters of a larger encompassing national community of organizations – perhaps something called students for a participatory society this time around – or even students for a participatory world – and maybe even having each chapter choose its own local name. Dave Dellinger SPS. Emma Goldman SPS. Malcolm X SPS. And for that matter, Rosa Luxembourg SPS, Emiliano Zapata SPS, Che Guevara SPS. And so on.
Imagine, in short, students rising up with information, relentless focus, and some abandon too, becoming angry, militant, and aggressive, but keeping foremost mutual concern and outreaching compassion.
Imagine all this pumping into the already nationally growing U.S. dissent against war and injustice, pumping into the neighborhood associations and union gatherings and church cells and GI resistance, a youth branch willing to break the laws of the land and to push thoughts and deeds even into revolutionary zones. Imagine students singing, dancing, marching, and law breaking up a storm.
That is something the antiwar movement, the anti corporate globalization movement, the movement for civil rights and against racism and sexism, the movements for local rights against environmental degradation, the movements for consumer rights against corporate commercialism, and the labor movement too, all need.
We need youth.
Imagine young people, with time, energy, heart, and mind, discerning that they are being coerced by society most often to become passive victims, sometimes to become passive agents, occasionally to become active perpetrators but only as cruel and rich beneficiaries of society’s injustices. Imagine students seek more and other. Imagine they hunker down for the long haul, much better equipped and much better oriented than my generation ever was.
I think, I hope, students are about to not only reject statist war and corporate greed, but to carry that rejection into positive advocacy and anger that gives entire campuses and not small sub communities sustained commitment. That will be a ticket to a new world for everyone, a ticket much better than old style graduation into the morally decrepit world all around us. This trip is long. But why not embark now?