The death of campus protest, so much for liberal indoctrination

From the National Post

by Johnathan Kay

All of the caricatures of America’s scholastic elite come alive on Bard College’s picture-perfect upstate New York campus. The faculty is full of glittering polymaths, who burble casually about Goethe and Hegel. Bard’s long-time president, Leon Botstein, is also the conductor of two major orchestras. His friends include George Soros, who this year announced a $60-million donation. All around the world, ambitious philanthropic projects bear the Bard name – including educational programs in New Orleans, Kyrgyzstan, South Africa, Russia and New York State’s own prison system. Whatever else may be said about them, the elites who populate Bard take their responsibilities to the less fortunate very seriously.

Another thing that may be said about them (also true to caricature) is that they tend to be unapologetically liberal. At a Bard conference I spoke at this past weekend – “Truthtelling: Democracy in an Age Without Facts,” hosted by the school’s Hannah Arendt Center – president Botstein expressed exasperation at Tea Party types who do not appreciate the “privilege” of paying taxes. He also mused openly, and to much apparent approval, that America’s public-school system might be improved if all the private schools were shut down – because the nation’s well-connected 1% wouldn’t put up with their children getting a second-class education. Following on this theme, a Bard literature professor suggested that bad public schools were part of a deliberate plan by the corporate oligarchy to create an underclass to staff the nation’s low-paying jobs.

And yet, for all the left-wing opinions I heard, most of them seemed to be uttered more in a spirit of exasperation than activism. There were various passing references to the ongoing Occupy events, a twohour train ride away in Manhattan. But no one here seemed convinced that such demonstrations would change American politics in any tangible way; much less that we should all hop on trains and join them – a next step that previous generations of campus leftists, meeting in similarly agitated times, would have seen as perfectly obvious. During my (admittedly brief)sojourns around campus, I found the usual bake sales for Central America, but nothing in the way of true ’60sstyle activist ferment.

Bard is a sign of the times. Historically, left-wing protest movements have been hatched and nurtured on campuses – Berkeley, Kent State, Paris University at Nanterre. Back in 1970, more than 450 American campuses were shut down when four million students went on strike. Compare that to 2011: The Occupy movement has almost completely bypassed North American university life, and has instead coalesced in downtown areas.

At Harvard this week, a group of pro-Occupy activists walked out of their introductory economics class to protest the university’s allegedly prolaissez-faire bias. The media treated it like a big deal: But in fact, just 70 students – 10% of the class – walked out. They were booed by the others as they left.

What happened to the spirit of protest on campus? I put the question to Brandeis University president Frederick Lawrence, who spoke to a large crowd at Toronto’s Granite Club on Thursday night, a guest of Brandeis alumnus and boardof-trustees member Leonard Asper. Back in 1969, when Lawrence was still in grade school, Brandeis was the scene of a major sit-in by 300 black students and anti-war protesters. The New York Times published a large picture of the administration building, which, the caption explained, had been seized by “negroes.” These days, students – of whatever race – seem too worried about their job prospects to occupy anything except the library.

“The social-justice mission of Brandeis goes back to its founding in 1948,” Lawrence tells me. “But you don’t have the same revolutionary spirit of the 1960s. Instead, you have students more focused on helping the world in more concrete, but maybe smaller, ways.” (He ticks off a long list of programs that Brandeis has set up for disadvantaged applicants, as well as individual stories of students doing good in the world – such as a fellow who spent his summer in India matching indigent peasants with donated eyeglasses.)

“If you look at what was going on in the 1960s, you have to consider that it was a lot easier to be a ‘revolutionary’ if you knew that there was a job waiting for you when you were ready to be absorbed into the economy,” Lawrence says. “The students of today are worried that they will be part of the first generation of Americans who will not be better off than their parents. That focuses the mind.”

Elite campuses have a special role in Western revolt culture: They transform populist anger into intelligible, scholastically respectable doctrines. They also attract the attention of the rich and powerful – because elite campuses are where the children of Wall Street and Bay Street grow into adults. And the protest mantras they hurl at their professors and deans become the stuff of dinner-table arguments when they go home for Thanksgiving and Christmas. The failure of Occupy to catch fire on campuses thus helps explain why the movement already has lost its intellectual energy – with the street theatre now seeming more and more like a homeless encampment, and less like political protest.

There’s an irony at work here: Campus protest culture has been killed by the very economic turbulence and unemployment ennui that has propelled Occupy protesters onto the streets. If even the liberals of Bard and Brandeis aren’t willing to join the sans-culottes and sansabri, what chance do the revolutionaries have?

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