Why I Identify as a Student Activist

Pulled out some writing from earlier this summer.

I am a student activist because I believe this education is more than a training ground. I refuse to deny the value of my thought and action by asserting the existence of a more real world that lies beyond our imagined institutional borders. Positioning the university as training for a world of more real action to come makes NYU nothing more than a purple Disneyland in New York, reducing our intellectual and political activities to escapism in the service of established authority. I think ‘training ground’ notion of education fundamentally denies the purpose of being in school. Treating education as training already cedes legitimacy to the status quo as ‘the real world,’ at which point the individual contributions we imagine for ourselves as graduates lose their power and relevance. The lives we lead in our years as students necessarily impact the world around us – and not just in some impossible future. We labor, we consume and we educate each other in the process of obtaining a degree – that all-access ticket to ‘reality.’

I have three thoughts to add:

First Thought: Schools endure, like writing on the page. Schooling, like writing, is about trapping the ways of life and thinking that cannot be contained in transitory ways of life. Both redefine the ever changing character of existence by offering refuge from fading memory and fickle human relationships, particularly in the fast forwarding of an always-on electronic world. (In Gallatin, we call our personalized majors ‘concentrations’, and I find no more apt metaphor for the value of education) You can only learn so much without the time to think. There’s a reason that universities always place their year of founding on their seal: successful schools have a certain durability that defies the passing of administrations and the 15 minutes of fame we afford to politicians, celebrity and crises.

Once, when I was attending the University of Georgia, I stayed in Athens during Thanksgiving break. The city was transformed: empty streets, quiet bars, dark library. It showed me that there are different qualities of time – between the school which kept its eye to an institutional legacy, the students which inhaled and exhaled out of class then town, and then the city, which moves with the rhythms of bills, television shows and politics. University activism is useful insofar as it takes advantage of this disjointed temporal relationship to other forms of political power, providing focus when they distract, remembering when they demand forgetting. University activism should focus on creating a just institution that transcends the short-term news, economic and political cycles, allowing critical distance towards these systems by offering four-years of refuge from larger forms of institutional power.

Second Thought: A political focus on elections can only take us so far. It straightjackets the speed and type of organizing into the demands of those running the polls and manning the presses. Universities transcend these systems of power, and act as jumping off points for movements that could not survive as day-to-day political struggles. A few universities are older than the Constitution; some (like Georgia) have been war zones, and others have been the silent vanguard for some of the most powerful movements in the world (U. Chicago and neoliberal economics being the quintessential example). And so, activism: educational institutions should be a point of political struggle through their unique endurance.

Universities also have more immediate impacts on the world that form the basis for struggles to change them. The University leaves its fingerprints on a city, transforming how people live. Even if I don’t think changing NYU will launch a messianic revolution against all forms of oppression, I think I should struggle to change it because the institution hurts a not insubstantial number of people.

Schools impact their immediate communities in a material way, making colleges useful tools for making concrete changes in the lives of those directly affected by the institutional activities of the school. The struggles are endless: land use, fair wages, unionization, local food purchasing, resource use, and more. Concrete struggles about the operation of the university provide the terrain that hosts a broader battle for the creation of democratic institutions, making them ideal sites for identifying local struggles in the pursuit of global goals.

Third Thought: Education should become a site of open potential. Even if attending college expresses a certain type of privilege, activism within the university can trigger a deconstruction of that privilege by making the institution more democratic. Education can remake the world, if it can become open to more voices by positioning itself in opposition to the trappings of poverty . Enabling social mobility should be one goal of universities; criticism of those at the top of the social ladder is another. Universities can challenge the limitations of social class by encouraging social mobility in financial aid and affirmative action policies, but also by ruthless criticism of the people that try to protect their social standing through the various manifestations of the state, police and other institutions. One of the most conservative institutions I know is debt, forcing the debtors vested interest in the powers-that-be, requiring the monetarized approval of establishment to free themselves from the past. The power of universities lies in their potential to erase old debts – both intellectual and financial.

So: activism, because our college isn’t electoral, because it runs parallel to the cycle of elections, and aims its theoretical energies at forms of power where democracy remains an ideological impossibility.


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