The Good, Bad, and Ugly of Student Protests

Student protests have always interested me as larger expressions of disagreement. They channel the energies of students trying to discover their own values, but oddly contrast the well-spring of tolerance that usually characterizes the institutions within which they occur. Upon participation in such rallies, a group of aligned demonstrators becomes acutely aware of the limits of mutual understanding and consonance with other people. No doubt, they refuse to rest upon the unstable convictions of those around them. On the other hand, they are largely ignorant of the opinions, habits, and judgements of their fellows, and avoid any attempt at reconciliation.

Often times these demonstrations can devolve into low and sorrowful exhibitions of disorder, largely derivative of the close-mindedness they sought to challenge. These considerations, then, present a weighty dilemma — when we decide to protest, are we to use violence in fighting for our cause, or rather stress non-participation in what we believe is morally reprehensible? More importantly, when we do so, is the destruction of property or disruption of classes the unfortunate collateral of civil remonstration, or must we demand better in pursuit of a safe, unhampered exchange of ideas?

As a collective of universities and students, we must grope our way to the ideology of disagreement without hindrance. I write only from the perspective of a Berkeley undergraduate, but when marches set academic buildings ablaze, and revetments of students prevent others from attending class, I am left sputtering with indignation at how carelessly we disregard a university’s guiding purpose. Protests are legitimate challenges of oppression and one-sided ideological armaments, but they do not take priority, and they certainly must not undermine the academic freedom and collegiate opportunities of those caught in the cross-hairs.

To do so would render us an unread, unstudied, and equally parochial group that is undeserving of the privilege that is higher education. That being said, to not adopt the guiding lines of disobedience and protest in the teeth of injustice would be just as foolish. I need not look beyond the Greensboro Lunch Counter Sit-Ins or more recent Never Again movement for sobering proof. I simply believe that succumbing to the dupe of violence or combative disruption is irresponsible, and leaves student protestors not a whit better than their opposition. They cannot be regarded as redeeming elements, morally or intellectually, wherever they occur.

Universities have evidently succumbed to the likes of politicians, public opinion, and eccentric benefactors. That being said, engaged by and with themselves, they are prone to manipulation from within. I quickly point you to the American Association of University Professor’s 1915 Declaration of Principles. I will refer to it briefly.

To think that students could disrupt the ability for an instructor to teach ‘the genuine and uncolored product of his own study or that of fellow-specialists’ is to be lacking in any semblance of integrity or probity. Universities are ‘an intellectual experiment station, where new ideas may germinate and where their fruit, though still distasteful to the community as a whole, may be allowed to ripen’. As Keith Whittington says, “they serve as an ‘inviolable refuge’ from the tyranny of democracy that demands that everyone think alike, feel alike and speak alike.”

Student protestors who interfere with teaching or class attendance because a school policy deviates from their preferred orthodoxy aren’t doing themselves or the university any meaningful reform. The goal should be to disagree with intent to engender change, not protest for the sake of ferocious and short-sided destruction. Students concerned about hardline conservatives taking the podium within their ideological battlement of liberalism should not be allowed to prevent other students from hearing lectures from right-wing purists. That doing so would be of good service to an institution that glorifies free speech and ideological liberty is painfully ironic.

Campus protests prove valuable as a means for drawing attention to injustice and hypocrisy, acting as a sometimes necessary prelude to action. However, when they transmute into instruments of turmoil and mirrored bigotry, they kick dirt in the values promulgated by respected institutions of higher learning. Teaching students is the impelling light of a university’s mission. But teaching requires that “students and their professors be able to gather together on campus unmolested by those who might object to what is being taught, how it is being taught, and by whom.” For better or worse, student protests must stop at the entrance to academic buildings.