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Thursday, December 31, 2015

December 31, 2015: AmericanStudying 2015: Campus Protests

[In my annual end-of-year series, I’ll AmericanStudy some big stories from the year about which I didn’t get to write in this space. I’d love to hear your thoughts on these and any other 2015 stories!]
On two ways AmericanStudies can help us support the current wave of college protests.
I get that the protests which have swept across many of the nation’s college campuses in the second half of 2015—and which are mostly, if unfortunately not entirely, linked to the #BlackLivesMatter movement—are complex, and as open to critique as any social movement (especially one led by 18-22 year olds). Indeed, such critiques are vital if the movement is to endure, grow, and fulfill its possibilities as a part of American higher education and society. But at the same time, to my mind far too many of the critiques have treated the student protesters as simply out-of-touch, spoiled brats, looking to turn college into a “day care” or the like. Such reductive responses not only elide many of the serious issues and events on campuses to which the protesters are responding (a list that seems to grow longer every day), but fail to recognize the historical parallels that can help us see this latest wave of protests for the significant movement they are.
For one thing, those reductive responses to these 21st century college protests echo quite closely many of the official responses to 1960s college protesters. When protests erupted at New York’s Columbia University in the spring of 1968, for example, police were brought in to violently remove the protesters and the remainder of the spring semester was cancelled, an excessive administrative response that could logically follow from the refusal to hear or negotiate with college protesters that the “This is not a day care!” college president embodies. And while the shootings of student protesters at Kent State two years later represented of course another level of excessive response, I would argue that they were on the same spectrum of official rigidity and overreaction as Columbia’s actions. In each of these cases, as in too many of our current ones, dismissals of student concerns and voices led directly to an overt desire only to silence and shut down these protests, rather than to consider the sources of their grievances and how they might be engaged. History has not looked favorably on the 1960s official responses, a lesson that current administrations and officials would do well to learn.
And then there are those football players at the University of Missouri. The team’s protest was frequently compared to the most famous moment in which sports were linked to social protest: the Black Power salute of athletes John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. Yet the very comparison reveals how rarely American athletes have been at the center of such protests—and since Carlos and Smith were protesting as amateur individuals, rather than as a team connected to a powerful and wealthy football program and its public university, I would argue that the Missouri protest was in many ways even more striking and radical (not least because it had the support of the team’s head coach as well). While big-time college football often seems to embody the worst of American higher education in the 21st century, there’s no reason why it can’t also become part of movements to improve that system and the society of which it’s a vital part—and the Missouri protest represented an inspiring move in that direction.
Last 2015 story tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other 2015 stories you’d AmericanStudy?

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