As Occupy Wall Street moves into its second month, the movement is spreading into colleges and universities across the country, culminating in a National Solidarity Teach-in scheduled for early November. What's surprising to me is not that the movement has spread to colleges, but rather that it did not start there initially. During the Vietnam War, for example, the first stateside protests were student demonstrations in May of 1964. College students were at the center of the anti-war movement, primarily because it affected them directly through the draft. The Occupy movement also affects college students directly, as its primary focus is on issues of economic equity and the lack of political voice for American youth. So why has it taken so long for college students to rise up and say something?
Not Their Problem
When I got to college in the late 1980s, several of my professors regularly criticized my generation of students as disengaged, disinterested, and even apathetic. Of course, this was coming from the faculty members who were college students during the 1960s and had lived through the heyday of American protest. Still, looking back 20+ years later, I can see their point. We were in the midst of the trickle-down, Gordon Gecko, greed is good decades, where our current economic issues and social division took root. And we did nothing. Had college students in the 1980s stood up and marched against greed and selfishness, we would probably be less far down our current path of creating a polarized society divided between the haves and have nots.
So our current generation of college students is emerging from a cocoon of self-centered greed which characterized the generations between the 70s and now. Forty years of diminishing civic responsibility and compassion toward others is a hard thing to overcome. We saw an inkling of it during the last Presidential election, and that grass-root, youth movement is starting to pay some dividends in other ways. The current generation is to be commended for their effort and, hopefully, their efforts will be rewarded with substantial change. But what change are they actually looking for?
Occupy Colleges: What is the Objective?
Much like Occupy Wall Street, the Occupy Colleges movement seems to lack clear direction and a focused objective. An October 7, 2011 article by John Pelletier, director of the Center for Financial Literacy at Champlain College, attributes the impetus for the movement to anger over rising college debt and the generally poor job prospects for college graduates (InsideHigherEd.com). However, there is no attribution of this information to the movement and no reference to where it comes from. As with Occupy Wall Street, there are no clearly stated factors which inspired the movement. If the common knowledge understanding of the movement is to be believed, then, unfortunately the Occupy Colleges movement does not seem like it has actually moved beyond the me-centric, greed driven motivations of the 1980s.
I actually tend, despite a lack of evidence, to disagree with the idea that Occupy Colleges is only about individual students being upset with their own bad luck at graduating during a recession. That may have been the obvious impetus, but ultimately, the movement is driven by a realization that the underlying causes of the current economic and social state derive from greed and a lack of human compassion. In this way, the Occupy Colleges movement fits nicely with Occupy Wall Street as an expression of a societal disgust with the way in which wealth is distributed in our society. In other words, the lack of financial equity among all Americans. So, while the links are a bit muddled in the Colleges movement, the root cause of the protests is the same as that of the Wall Street protests.
But what do the Occupy Colleges protesters actually hope to gain through their actions? That really is the big question and one where a lack of centralized organization and clear message hurt the movement. Interestingly enough, however, the objectives for the movement may lie within higher education itself.
Looking to Higher Education for a Message
As an intellectual, I am both disturbed by and inspired by the fact that the movement has no specific objectives.
I am frightened because an undirected social movement ultimately has three potential outcomes: disorder, dissolution, or crystallization. Should the movement eventually lose its focus and turn towards violence and a mob mentality, our society could crumble, taking much of the world with it. This is the most frightening and dangerous possibility. Dissolution of the movement would be the most disappointing outcome. If this movement simply fades and dies we will not have made any progress in dealing with fundamental flaws in the way our society functions. The final possibility, crystallization, means that the movement finds concrete objectives and begins the process of making substantive change. This final option is where the academic roots and involvement in both the Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Colleges movements can have a real impact.
The decentralized nature of the Occupy Colleges movement and the current lack of clear objectives could well be changing. The diffuse decision making process seems to be leading the movement towards finding its voice through academics. Examining the "National Solidarity Teach-in" how to guide on the Occupy Colleges site reveals both that the movement has no real focus, and that it is desperately seeking one from academia. The guide provides an outline describing how to plan and conduct a teach-in, going into great detail about the audio/visual equipment required and which professors to approach as potential speakers. What it does not provide, however, is a single concrete piece of information about the movement or its objectives, or even why the teach-in is happening.
What the guide does provide is an opportunity for college professors to take the reins and guide this movement in whatever direction they choose. Here is the list of discussion "topics" provided on the site:
- What led up to the Occupy Movement?
- Why are people Occupying their cities?
- How can the Occupy movement effect public policy?
- What is the next positive step for Occupy Wall Street?
What is striking about this list is that these are all open-ended suggestions. There is complete and total academic freedom for the professor to discuss this movement in whatever context they choose. Take any approach you'd like: Marxist, postmodernist, neo-capitalist, whatever. Aside from the freedom to discuss the movement from any possible perspective, the final bullet, "What is the next positive step for Occupy Wall Street?" is an open call for guidance and direction. As educators, the rarest of opportunities now presents itself – for us to step out from behind the podium and drive the change that we want to see happen in the world. Any faculty member who is asked to speak at the national teach-in is being asked to lend their guidance to moving the movement forward. We need to take this opportunity to advocate for realistic and meaningful goals and objectives, guided by humanistic ideology and inspired by our knowledge of social practices and the history of successful social movements around the world.
As a professor, if you are asked to be a part of the National Teach-in, take advantage of the opportunity to advocate for the advancement of this movement by establishing a concrete agenda with attainable goals. You might start with making sure that education finds its way to the top of the list. That's my #1 goal.