On Monday, 27 brave, righteous student protesters smiled and cheered as they received arrest citations for refusing to leave the Financial Aid Office after administrators chose not to capitulate to their demands to “eliminate the student income contribution.”
What a joke.
Argue for lower tuition. Argue for more flexible aid packages for middle income students. But please stop “arguing” for the elimination of a cost that doesn’t exist. In other words, argue for something that actually matters — if only we knew what that was.
Ironically, it appears that our generation has forgotten how to protest. Rather than question bureaucracy through reasoned discourse, careful rhetoric and detailed plans of action — hallmarks of the great protesters of the 1960s — we have instead turned the fight for supposed egalitarianism into inherited dogma. We’re “fighting” for things that really don’t make a difference.
While Students Unite Now could only shout “We believe that we will win” over and over outside administrators’ offices, Mario Savio, the famous University of California, Berkeley advocate for unfettered free speech, had much stronger words for a true and crucial purpose — one that furthered the University and recognized its failures. He spontaneously shouted these stirring lines against the administrative plutocracy that denied a plurality of viewpoints from campus: “You’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels … upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!”
It was the left, not the right, that wanted freedom of expression in the ’60s; that was the key, they thought, to true liberty. Students wanted every kind of speaker to represent a diverse array of views on campus. They wanted more classes and more class time — discussion sections, clubs. Everything was intellectual. The tenor at Yale is sharply different today — equality is sought through orthodoxy, not lively conversation.
The recent Yale College Council Presidential debate exhibits this well. Fires were stoked when two candidates responded “no” to the rapid-fire question, “Is Yale institutionally racist?” The fact that this question was considered simple enough to be reduced to a yes or no answer is laughable. The fact that only one of those answers was popularly considered “correct” is frightening.
The onslaught continued: Yale has failed to address sexual misconduct? Check. Mental health is a huge concern on campus? Check. Yale must eliminate the student income contribution? Well, duh, check.
While different policies are frequently proposed to address these stock issues, the existence of the issues themselves is always assumed. Hardly ever do we question those assumptions — borrowed from generations before us — and seek the deeper reasons for their existence (or lack thereof).
By voicing “no,” to the unfairly worded question, Sal Rao ’20, the YCC president-elect, actually did a great service to campus discourse. Her initial intuition, that people on campus have worked hard over the years to make the campus a better, more comforting place appropriately recognized the danger in quickly affirming a problem as “institutional” — as something that is disseminated throughout every facet of the University. Real progress at the university level — if that’s at all what any protester is interested in — will only come if we sincerely recognize how far Yale has already come.
Protesters of the ’60s would find today’s advocacy utterly meaningless. In 1962, Tom Hayden of Students for a Democratic Society began the “Port Huron Statement,” a 60-plus-page manifesto on the plight of America, with a humility and honesty completely lacking from today’s activism: “We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit.”
Protesters recognized their relatively privileged positions in elite universities and instead turned their intentions to a place we often forget at Yale — the real world. The statement of Students for a Democratic Society outlined very specific and knowledgeable policy proposals against racial divides and McCarthyism that were backed by rigorous political theory. Later protesters of Vietnam poured their hearts into questioning the absence of meaning behind the government’s invasion.
Martin Luther King Jr. offers the most beautiful example of the height of reasoned discourse in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” He invokes Socrates, St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas to argue for the reversal of a fundamental wrong committed against the very history of humanity itself.
The protesters of the ’60s were great because they were radical: They questioned the very roots of institutions. They sought to understand the purpose of a university, or a country, and offered rigorous solutions to entrenched absurdities.
We’ve gotten to a point in the University’s history where students have it so good that we can’t distinguish between what is and isn’t important. We can’t assume that we know what battles should be fought or what injustices should be corrected. We’re a far cry away from a meaningful shout.
Leland Stange is a junior in Ezra Stiles College. His column runs on alternate Fridays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.