“The Big Uneasy,” Nathan Heller’s account of student activism at Oberlin College in the current issue of The New Yorker, has been the source of much conversation online over the last few days. Though the piece shares some annoying tics of the evergreen “what’s gone wrong at our college campuses?” genre, Heller at least tries to be relatively even-handed in his reporting, talking at length with students, faculty, and the college president.
But I have been struck by – and annoyed at – the ways in which the discussion of Oberlin and the Heller piece – like earlier discussions about events at Yale and the University of Missouri – has fallen into very old patterns of talking about a very old kind of student behavior. So, at the risk of stepping into the professional turf of Andrew Hartman and L.D. Burnett, here are some of my thoughts on this.
Students’ revolting against college and university authority is a very old phenomenon in American academic life. Indeed, such behavior goes back at least to the beginnings of the modern American university. For at least the last fifty years, one of the forms that such student behavior has taken is political organizing against the reigning vision of college education. Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement (1964-65) was, among other things, a critique of the “multiversity,” UC President Clark Kerr’s vision of modern higher education. At Cornell, in April 1969, members of the Afro-American Society occupied the student union, Willard Straight Hall, making a series of demands to improve the lot of African Americans students on campus and to increase the number of African American faculty. The occupation may be best remembered today for the Pulitzer Prize winning photograph of the students leaving Willard Straight Hall at the end of the occupation, brandishing guns. Before, during, and after the occupation, the Cornell administration tried to accommodate at least some of the demands of the AAS. Out of the protests eventually grew a Black studies program. In the 1980s, the struggle over the Western Civilization requirement became a flashpoint at Stanford, leading to its own share of protests (this is the subject of an award-winning dissertation and forthcoming book by our own L.D. Burnett).
Events at Berkeley, Cornell, and Stanford divided both students and faculty, often bitterly. And each of these events became powerful political symbols beyond campus. Especially off campus, these events have tended to evoke a louder response from those upset by them than from those sympathetic to student protestors. And the response has tended to be similar in each case. The students are spoken of as privileged and ungrateful. Their behavior and demands are treated as threats to the very existence of liberal education and a threat to society at large. Back in 1966, Reagan made this sort of response to events at Berkeley one of the major themes of his successful California gubernatorial campaign.
Half a century into this long history, it’s a wonder that events like those at Oberlin continue to evoke apocalyptic fears. Over those five decades, American colleges and universities have faced – and continue to face –a variety of real threats. But such student protests have somehow never managed to destroy American higher education. Yet, we predictably continue to get pieces like Rod Dreher’s response, at The American Conservative, to the Heller article on Oberlin, which see events on that campus as a brand new sort of outrage.
Dreher’s piece also has another common feature of hysterical responses to students behaving like, well, students: the presumptively new awfulness on campus reflects larger new and horrible things taking place in American culture as a whole. But I’ll let Dreher “explain”:
There’s a part of me that takes pleasure in the irrationality of the contemporary cultural left destroying itself. But these are actual lives here, and institutions that people now gone have loved, and took generations to build. All being dismembered by ideology and pathology. This doesn’t just happen, though, and Oberlin is not the only school like this. This sickness says something about the American ruling class. Only because he takes his cues from a culture like this could a President of the United States order every public school in the country to let boys who think they are girls use the locker room. The backlash in this country when it all starts to come apart is going to be a terrible thing to behold. If you’ve read your Dostoevsky, and if you know your early 20th century history, you know where this kind of thing went in Russia.
The long history of students attacking the institutions in which they find themselves should remind us that such demands are not signs of the end of the world – or even the end of liberal education. But it should also suggest that what is really most interesting about particular protests are likely to be local factors, in both place and time. Events at Oberlin this past year echo – in many ways – events at other, very different campuses, like the University of Missouri and Yale. But they are also distinct to Oberlin. There are probably new and interesting things going on, but we will only see them if we’re willing to stop being shocked and surprised at the mere fact of students behaving like students.
Being willing to look in detail at what’s happening on the ground at a particular institution at a particular time is, I think, necessary to draw actually well-founded conclusions about the broader implications of such events. Doing so also involves rejecting the strong tendency to, instead, simply put events like those at Oberlin in the service of some larger narrative, about free speech, “identity politics,” the supposedly feckless faculty, privileged and immature students, the decline of our colleges and universities, or even the politics of Israel / Palestine. Colleges, especially small liberal arts colleges, really are communities. And taking them seriously as such, rather than treating them as chits in one or another culture war, is a necessary first step in understanding and resolving tensions like those that appeared this year at Oberlin.
 According to Ian Wilhelm, in an excellent but unfortunately paywalled recent Chronicle of Higher Ed piece on the Cornell events, they had begun the occupation unarmed, but had acquired guns after white fraternity members had threatened to disrupt the occupation by force.