On Feb. 20 armed policemen knocked down the barricades and forced their way into the Kimmel Student Center at NYU. For the previous day and half, a band of students calling themselves “Take Back NYU” had been occupying a university cafeteria, issuing a grab bag of demands ranging from scholarships for Palestinian students to wider library access. YouTube videos and outraged blog posts carried their message forth from the “liberated space” at the Kimmel Center, until NYU cut off their Web access, university police poured in and the whole thing fell apart.
Those students’ attempts to “take back” their university were more or less a failure, but we at Yale would be amiss if we ignored the story of this protest or dismissed it as the sort of silly adolescent posturing one might expect at NYU.
That isn’t to say the events at NYU weren’t silly adolescent posturing. It’s hard to take seriously a revolutionary group who began its list of demands with guaranteed amnesty for its members. The video footage of the raid on the Kimmel Center doesn’t record a rebel’s defiant last stand; it looks like what it was: nervous undergraduates nattering on about “consensus” and lecturing policemen on the importance of avoiding brutality.
Their actions may not deserve our respect; but the motive behind them does. When the students of “Take Back NYU” camped out in the cafeteria, when they set up barricades in the hall, they announced a fusion of theory and practice. Almost every undergraduate is an idealist; these were willing to put themselves on the line for their ideals. And when it comes down to it, that’s what a university is for.
Here at Yale, in one of the centers of our nation’s intellectual life, we can hardly avoid coming across great ideas. To be a Yale student means to ponder the mysteries of life in late-night common-room conversations, to be inspired by (at least some of) the ideas we hear in lecture, and to be constantly, voluntarily or against our will, surrounded by the best that has been thought and said.
An old quip says that academia is where the battles are so fierce because the stakes are so small. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Those students at NYU, however misguided, did their university a service by raising the stakes of an academic debate. By putting their principles before their best interests, they helped their university fulfill its role in society. As centers of intellectual culture, universities have a responsibility to think on behalf of their societies: to provide solutions to problems and to articulate ideals for life. But for the university to take on this role, scholarship must be coupled with action; the compelling ideas and inspiring theories of the lecture hall must, one way or another, get out into the streets.
I think gender-neutral housing is a terrible idea, and one whose philosophical background is opposed to the right ordering of human life. But on Wednesday morning when I was walking through Cross Campus, I was thrilled to see the students protesting for gender-neutral housing camped out in their tents on the snowy lawn. There, I thought, is exactly what college is supposed to produce: people ready to embrace adversity and act on the principles they studied. I admired them and what they were accomplishing for better or for worse. And I felt ashamed that my activism is mainly limited to signing petitions pushed at me in the dining hall.
In one of Rainer Maria Rilke’s poems, the poet looks at a statue of the god Apollo, tracing it lovingly with his words. And when he finishes his description of this ideal work of art, he ends the poem not by praising the artist or by praising Apollo but by giving an order to the reader: “You must change your life.” Our studies here should make us feel the same way. When we encounter something meaningful in our studies, when we learn about a problem that cries out for a solution, we must change our lives.
And so I salute the members of “Take Back NYU,” and I salute the Students for Housing Equality at Yale, and I salute everyone at this college who has worked to raise the stakes of academia. Keep it up; a little more radicalism would be good for us all.
Kevin Gallagher is a sophomore in Pierson