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Heather Mac Donald
A is for Activism
Spring 1999

Worried that college students are spending too much time studying rather than protesting? Relax: in his new book, When Hope and Fear Collide: A Portrait of Today's Student, Columbia Teachers College president Arthur Levine wants you to know that today's students are just as activist as in the sixties glory days. What a relief! The thought that students were using precious college time to read Melville and Hume instead of occupying their college president's office certainly was keeping me up at night.

Levine and co-author Jeanette S. Cureton surveyed thousands of college students nationwide about their political views and activities, among other topics, and happily report that today's students are nearly as likely to demonstrate as in the banner year of 1969. In a recent op-ed in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Levine marvels at the sophisticated technology now used to coordinate sit-ins ("lap-tops and cell phones"!) and gushes at the "conciliatory and non-ideological tactics" of today's student protesters. Conciliatory? Since when was stealing and destroying newspapers—a favorite tactic used to silence samizdat opinion on affirmative action—conciliatory? How about hunger strikes, that beloved tactic of self-dramatizing minority students, offended at some imaginary slight? Or faked hate crimes, an increasingly popular stunt to force action on gay and minority demands?

That anyone should set out seriously to determine whether students are protesting enough is one more sign of the utter bankruptcy of higher education. Students who cannot write a coherent paragraph, who cannot distinguish Kepler from Kipling, and who have read at best five books in their lives, claim to be oppressed by studying dead white males like Shakespeare—and we're supposed to pay attention? Students who can't find Viet Nam on the map, and who haven't the slightest comprehension of Third World economics, much less how to run a business, try to dictate labor conditions for foreign garment factories—and we're supposed to heed their demands? Well, sure: because in today's academic world, feelings count more than knowledge.

Besides, responding to protests is so much more exciting than educating students. During a hunger strike at the University of California at Santa Barbara over alleged insensitivity to Latinos, teams of administrators spent up to five hours every day negotiating with the protesters. When the protest ended, the Vice Chancellor enjoyed a heartwarming and photogenic moment breaking bread with the strikers. All much more gratifying, no doubt, than figuring out how to teach barely literate students how to write.

And student protest can be quite useful to administrators seeking to push their campuses ever further left. After a hunger strike at the University of Colorado protesting the denial of tenure to an Hispanic professor, the university president appointed a commission to investigate possible faculty racism and announced her support for multicultural curricular reform and an ethnic studies department. The courageous students, you see, made her do it.

Levine reports solemnly a pronouncement by a student sage on the dire social decline of America: "Rome fell; Greece fell; why not the United States?" Before taking such adolescent melodrama seriously, he should have asked the student if he knew when Rome fell.

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