Student Protest Is an Essential Part of Education

Anyone who was at Columbia University in the spring of 1968 cannot help but see a reprise of those stormy, fateful and thrilling days in what is happening on the Morningside Heights campus today.

But there is a troubling and significant difference. If the students back in ’68 were divided into rebellious, longhaired pukes and conservative, close-cropped jocks, with a lot of undecided in between, the current protests at Columbia — and at the growing number of other campuses to which they have spread — have witnessed personal and often ugly divisions between Jewish students and Arab or Muslim students or anyone perceived to be on the “wrong” side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

That, in turn, has thrust the protests squarely into the polarized politics of the land, with politicians and pundits on the right portraying the encampments as dangerous manifestations of antisemitism and wokeness and demanding that they be razed — and many university administrations calling in the police to do just that.

The transformation of the protests into a national political football is perhaps inevitable — everyone up to President Richard Nixon sounded off about students in ’68 — but it is still a shame. Because student protests, even at their most disruptive, are at their core an extension of education by other means, to paraphrase Carl von Clausewitz’s famous definition of war.

The hallowed notion of a university as a bastion of discourse and learning does not and cannot exclude participation in contemporary debates, which is what students are being prepared to lead. From Vietnam to apartheid to the murder of George Floyd, universities have long been places for open and sometimes fiery debate and inquiry. And whenever universities themselves have been perceived by students to be complicit or wrong in their stances, they have been challenged by their communities of students and teachers. If the university cannot tolerate the heat, it cannot serve its primary mission.

The counterargument, of course, is that without decorum and calm, the educational process is disrupted, and so it is proper and necessary for administrations to impose order. But disruption is not the only byproduct; protests can also shape and enhance education: a disproportionate number of those who rose up at Columbia in 1968 went into social service of some sort, fired by the idealism and faith in change that underpinned their protests and by the broader social movement of the ’60s.

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