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Left behind?

American youth and the global fight for democracy

Part One – By Henry A. Giroux

In the face of the mass uprisings in Western Europe and the Middle East, many commentators have raised questions about why comparable forms of widespread resistance are not taking place among American youth.

Everyone from leftist critics to mainstream radio commentators voice surprise and disappointment that American youth appear unengaged by the collective action their counterparts in other countries are participating in and promoting. Courtney Martin, a senior correspondent for The American Prospect, suggests that American students are often privileged and view politics as something that happens elsewhere, far removed from local activism.1

She writes: Those who are politically active tend to set their sights on distant horizons – the poor in India, say or the oppressed in Afghanistan . . . Many of us from middle- and upper-income backgrounds have been socialised to believe that it is our duty to make a difference, but undertake such efforts abroad – where the ‘real’ poor people are. We found nonprofits aimed at schooling children all over the globe while rarely acknowledging that our friend from the high school football team can’t afford the same kind of opportunities we can.

Or we create Third World bicycle programmes while ignoring that our lab partner has to travel two hours by bus, as he is unable to get a driver’s license as an undocumented immigrant. We were born lucky, so we head to the bars – oblivious to the rising tuition prices and crushing bureaucracy inside the financial aid office.2

US students have other things on their minds

The other side of the over-privileged youth argument is suggested by long time activist Tom Hayden, who argues that many students are so saddled with financial debt and focused on what it takes to get a job that they have little time for political activism.3 Student activism in the United States, especially since the 1980s, has been narrowly issues-based, ranging from a focus on student unionisation, gender equity, environmental issues and greater minority enrolment to “the establishment of ethnic studies programmes in universities or health-care benefits for graduate students”, thus circumscribing in advance youth participation in larger political spheres.4 Simeon Talley, a writer for Campus Progress, may be closer to the truth in claiming that students in the United States have less of an investment in higher education than European students because, for the last 30 years, they have been told that higher education neither serves a public good nor is an invaluable democratic public sphere.5

These commentators, along with many others, all underestimate the historical and current impacts of the conservative political climate on American campuses on the culture of youth protest. This conservatism took firm hold with the election of Ronald Reagan and the emergence of both neoconservative and neoliberal disciplinary apparatuses since the 1980s. Youth have in fact been very active in the last few decades, but in many instances, for deeply conservative ends. As Susan Searls Giroux
has effectively argued, a series of well-funded, right-wing campus organisations have made much use of old and new media to produce best-selling screeds as well as interactive websites for students to report injustices in the interests of protesting the alleged left totalitarianism of the academy.

She writes: Conservative think tanks provide $20 million annually to the campus Right, according to the People for the American Way, to fund campus organisations such as Students for Academic Freedom, whose credo is ‘You can’t get a good education if they’re only telling you half the story’ and boasts over 150 campus chapters.

Providing an online complaint form for disgruntled students to fill out, the organisation’s website monitors insults, slurs and claims of more serious infractions that students claim to have suffered. Similarly, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, founded by William F. Buckley, funds over 80 right-wing student publications through its Collegiate Network, which has produced such media darlings as Dinesh D’Souza and Ann Coulter. There is also the Leadership Institute, which trains, supports and does public relations for 213 conservative student groups who are provided with suggestions for inviting conservative speakers to campus, help starting conservative newspapers or training to win campus elections. Or the Young Americans for Freedom, which sponsors various campus activities such as ‘affirmative action bake sales’ where students are charged variously according to their race or ethnicity or announcements of ‘whites only’ scholarships.6

Liberal students, for their part, have engaged in forms of activism that also mimic neoliberal rationalities. The increasing emphasis on consumerism, immediate gratification and the narcissistic ethic of privatisation took its toll in a range of student protests developed over issues such as the right to party and “a defence of the right to consume alcohol”. As Mark Edelman Boren points out in his informative book on student resistance, alcohol-related issues caused student uprisings on a number of American campuses.

In one telling example, he writes “At Ohio University, several thousand students rioted in April 1998 for a second annual violent protest over the loss of an hour of drinking when clocks were officially set back at the beginning of daylight savings time; forced out of area bars, upset students hurled rocks and bottles at police, who knew to show up in full riot gear after the previous year’s riot. The troops finally resorted to shooting wooden ‘knee-knocker’ bullets at the rioters to suppress them.”7

Student resistance in the USA must be viewed within a broader political landscape

All of these explanations have some merit in accounting for the lack of student resistance among American students, but I’d like to shift the focus of the conversation. Student resistance in the United States must be viewed within a broader political landscape that, with few exceptions, remains unexamined. In the first instance, students in Western Europe, in particular, are faced with a series of crises that are more immediate, bold and radical in their assault on young people and the institutions that bear down heavily on their lives. In the face of the economic recession, educational budgets are being cut in take-no-prisoners extreme fashion; the social state is being radically dismantled; tuition costs have spiked exponentially; and unemployment rates for young people are far higher than in the United States (with the exception of youth in poor minority communities).

European students have experienced a massive and bold assault on their lives, educational opportunities and their future. Moreover, European students live in societies where it becomes more difficult to collapse public life into largely private considerations. Students in these countries have access to a wider range of critical public spheres; politics in many of these countries has not collapsed entirely into the spectacle of celebrity/commodity culture; left-oriented political parties still exist; and labour unions have more political and ideological clout than they do in the United States. Alternative newspapers, progressive media and a profound sense of the political constitute elements of a vibrant, critical, formative culture and range of public spheres that have not erased the possibility to think critically, engage in political dissent, organise collectively and inhabit public spaces in which alternative and critical theories can be developed.

Because of the diverse nature of how higher education is financed and governed in the United States, the assault on colleges and universities has been less uniform and differentially spread out among community colleges, public universities and elite colleges, thus lacking a unified and highly oppressive narrative against which to position resistance. Moreover, the campus ‘culture wars’ narrative has served to galvanise many youth around a reactionary cultural project while distancing them from the very
nature of the economic and political assault on their future.

Student resistance there, but not sustained

All this suggests that another set of questions has to be raised. The more important questions, ones which do not reproduce the all-too-commonplace demonisation of young people as apathetic, are twofold. First, the issue should not be why there have been no student protests, but why have the protests that have happened not been more widespread, linked, sustained? The student protests against the draconian right-wing policies attempting to destroy the union rights and collective bargaining power of teachers supported by Republican Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin is one example indicating that students are engaged and concerned.

There are also smaller student protests taking place at various colleges, including Berkeley, The City University of New York (CUNY), and on other campuses throughout the United States. But student activists appear to constitute a minority of students, with very few enrolled in professional programmes. Most student activists are coming
from the arts, social sciences and humanities (the conscience of the college).

Over 40 states have pledged major cuts to higher education

Second, there is the crucial issue of what sort of conditions young people have inherited in American society that have undermined their ability to be critical agents capable of waging a massive protest movement against the growing injustices they face on a daily basis. After all, the assault on higher education in the United States, while not as severe as in Europe, still suggests ample reasons for students to be in the streets protesting such policies. Close to 43 states have pledged major cuts to higher education in order to compensate for insufficient state funding.

This means an unprecedented hike in tuition rates is being implemented, enrolments are being slashed, salaries are being reduced and need-based scholarships in some states are being eliminated. Pell Grants, which allow poor students to attend college, are being cut. Robert Reich has chronicled some of the impacts on university budgets,
which include: Georgia cutting “state funding for higher education by $151 million”; Michigan reducing “student financial aid by $135 million”;8 Florida raising tuition in its 11 public universities by 15 percent; and the University of alifornia increasing tuition by 40 percent  in two years.9 As striking as these increases are, tuition has steadily risen over the past several decades, becoming a disturbingly normative feature of postsecondary education.

One reason students are not protesting these cuts in large numbers may be that, by the time the average American student now graduates, he or she has not only a degree, but also an average debt of about $23,000.10 The vast majority must balance jobs with academics, leaving no opportunity to protest, however motivated a student might be. This debt amounts to a growing form of indentured servitude for many students that both undercuts any viable notion of social activism and is exacerbated by the fact
that “unemployment for recent college graduates jumped from 5.8 percent to 8.7 percent in 2009”.11 Crippling debt plus few job opportunities in a society in which individuals are relentlessly held as solely responsible for the problems they experience, leaves little room for rethinking the importance of larger social issues, and the necessity for organised collective action against systemic injustices.

In addition, as higher education becomes one of the most fundamental requirements for employment, many universities have reconfigured their mission exclusively in corporate terms, replacing education with training and defining students as consumers, faculty as a cheap form of subaltern labour and entire academic departments as “cost centres and revenue production units”.12 No longer seen as a social or public good, higher education is increasingly viewed less as a site of struggle than as a credential mill for success in the global economy.

Sustained critical thinking part of a vanishing culture

Meanwhile, not only have academic jobs been disappearing, but given the shift to an instrumentalist education that is technicist in nature, students have been confronted
for quite some time with a vanishing culture for sustained critical thinking. As universities and colleges emphasise market-based skills, students are neither learning how to think critically nor how to connect private troubles with larger public issues.

The humanities continue to be downsized, eliminating one source of learning that encourages students to develop a commitment to public values, social responsibilities and the broader demands of critical citizenship. Moreover, critical thinking has been devalued as a result of the growing corporatisation of higher education. Under the influence of corporate values, thought in its most operative sense loses its modus operandi as a critical mediation on “civilization, existence and forms of evaluation”.13

Henry A. Giroux currently holds the Global TV Network Chair Professorship at McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, in the English and Cultural Studies Department. He has taught at Boston University, Miami University of Ohio and Penn State University. His most recent books include Youth in a Suspect Society (Palgrave, 2009) and Politics After Hope: Obama and the Crisis of Youth, Race, and Democracy (Paradigm, 2010). This extract appears here with his kind permission.

1 This theme is taken up in great detail in Courtney Martin’s Do it Anyway: A New Generation of Activists (Boston: Beacon Press, 2010). The analysis suffers from the same sort of privilege that it critiques.

2 Martin, Courtney E. (2010) Why Class Matters in Campus Activism. The American Prospect, 6 December 2010.

3 Ibid.

4 Boren, Mark E. (2001) Student Resistance: A History of the Unruly Subject. New York: Routledge, p. 227.

5 Talley, S. (2011) Why Aren’t US Students Rioting Over Crazy Tuition Hikes Like College Kids in Europe?’t_us_students_rioting_over_crazy_tuition_hikes_like_college_kids_in_europe/

6 Giroux, Susan S. (2010) Between Race and Reason: Violence, Intellectual Responsibility and the University to Come. Stanford: Stanford University Press, p. 79.

7 Boren, Mark E. (2001) op. cit., p. 228.

8 Reich, Robert (2010) The Attack on American Education., 23 December 2010 [Internet].

9 In a personal correspondence to me, David Theo Goldberg spells out the nature of the cuts at the University of California system. He writes: “The projection for next year is a $500 million cut to the UC budget from previous state support of $3.3 billion or so (and an overall budget of $19 billion) for the system. About a $50 million cut to
each of the campuses. And another $500 million unfunded mandate to pick up campus contributions to pensions. So we are looking at something like an overall 3-6% cut of entire budget (including salaries and student support and all). Student fees have increased a total of 40 percent in past two years, though only those whose families earn more than $180 000 a year get to pay the full fees; those earning under somewhere in the vicinity of $80 000 a year pay no fees at all – so about half UC student population pay less than full fees. That said, [Governor Jerry] Brown has mandated that UC cannot raise fees again to deal with the next round of cuts – or else will lose further state funding proportionately. And where California goes often goes the rest of the nation.”

10 There are many books and articles that take up this issue. One of the most incisive commentators is Williams, Jeffrey (2008) Student Debt and the Spirit of Indenture. Dissent, Fall 2008.

11 Mascriotra, David (2010) The Rich Get Richer and the Young Go Into Deep Debt. BuzzFlash, 6 December 2010.

12 Head, Simon (2011) The Grim Threat to British Universities. New York Review of Books, 13 January 2011.

13 Nancy, Jean-Luc (2010) The Truth of Democracy, trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas. New York: Fordham University Press, p. 9.


Category: Featured Articles, Winter 2011

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