When Students Become the Teachers

The recent student-led demonstrations across California and nearly 30 other state campuses for affordable public education offer a glimpse into what might become a future trend in American politics.
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In tumultuous times, student protest can often be the bellwether of a nation's fortunes. The recent student-led demonstrations across California and nearly 30 other state campuses for affordable public education offer a glimpse into what might become a future trend in American politics.


Prompted by events in the nation's largest state, California, where the legislature proposed a 32 percent tuition hike and $600 million in budget cuts to the University of California system, hundreds of thousands of students, faculty, union members, and others nationally made it clear they reject the argument of state leaders that public education in today's economy has nowhere to go but down.

They are right to do so. The money and resources haven't disappeared. In fact, the reserves of wealth in this country remain staggering. But it will take new priorities and new politics for education, prosperity, and progress to have a future in this country.

The Legacy of Student Protest
With decreased funding and tuition hikes now the norm in the majority of states, it's clear cutbacks in education are more than a temporary trend for a recessionary period. As the March 10 Economist reports, "These increases may signal a permanent shift in the cost of higher education, analysts say, which could dissuade poorer people from considering college. It is unlikely that fees will return to pre-recession levels once the economy recovers."

The message of the March 4 Day of Action says such a betrayal of education is intolerable. Yet with dreary predictably student demonstrators are told there's nothing to do but accept such bleak prospects. "In these difficult economic times," explains a March 11 Cornell Daily Sun editorial, "states such as California that face dire budget straits are forced to make difficult cuts to vital programs. The decisions to cut budgets and raise tuitions-though undeniably causing much pain-are, given certain circumstances, justifiable." Besides, ask the editors, "Is increasing tuition preferable to closing high schools, day care centers or free health clinics?"

Actually, the answer to the latter is no. But isn't that the proverbial choice in today's stilted political culture? If the Republicans are the Party of No, the Democrats have become the Party of We Can't Promise Much, But We'll See What We Can Do. No wonder students are taking matters to the streets.

There could hardly be a more opportune moment to do so. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the May 1970 student strike against the war, the largest student protest in American history. Then some four million college students and faculty took to the streets to protest the Vietnam War and the murder of four Kent State students by the Ohio National Guard. Over the course of that historic month more than 900 colleges and universities shut down.

Tellingly, students then as now were told they couldn't do much to affect change. The student protesters of the late '60s and early '70s were regularly dismissed as "naïve, immature kids" who couldn't possibly understand the nuances of foreign policy. Our government leaders in their sophisticated wisdom had determined intervention in Vietnam was in the national interest, so we were told. Who were a bunch of 20-year olds to question them?

Who they were actually was a powerful and historic force for peace. In fact, in late 1969 President Nixon warned North Vietnam that unless they and their allies in the south surrendered, they faced a serious escalation of the war-including possible use of nuclear weapons. As Paul Loeb recounts in his newly revised edition of "Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in Challenging Times" (St. Martin's Griffin, 2010), two weeks before Nixon's deadline for surrender, millions of students participated in hundreds of antiwar teach-ins, vigils, and marches across the country.

Of course, the public Nixon claimed to be unmoved by the protests. He would make a point of watching a football game on TV while thousands of peace demonstrators marched outside the White House. But the private Nixon feared the growing peace movement and the "polarization" it had brought to American politics, enough so that the huge wave of student-led protests that fall forced him to retreat from any imminent plans for a nuclear assault. The highly visible, passionate voice of the student-led peace movement was steadily changing the political landscape, dismantling the once trusted credibility of the government's case for war.

Better Living Through Mass Protest
Imagine in 2010 if President Obama had used the great power of his office to organize a grassroots mobilization of the youthful base that propelled him into office to now push for a complete revamping of the health care system. With the strength of a people's protest of teach-ins, vigils, picket lines, rallies and marches behind him, the new president might even have discovered non-profit, single-payer health care was now "politically feasible." Perhaps such bold leadership might have propelled Obama toward a presidential legacy comparable to that of Canada's Tommie Douglas, the Saskatchewan Social-Democrat whose early '60s campaign for publicly funded health care earned him a reputation as one of that country's most popular historic figures.

But Obama did not take that course. Instead, the base was effectively sent home, their incredulity at the obstructionism of the Republican right or the latest Rush Limbaugh outrage largely confined to complaints over dinner while watching MSNBC's Keith Olbermann or Rachel Maddow. Meanwhile, the far right was actually organizing protests against the "tyranny" of the liberal something or other.

The lesson here is that social progress is never a gift. Entrenched industries have a way of preferring the status quo, no matter how unjust or irrational that status quo. But the message of the students who took to the streets on March 4 says the status quo is never the end of the story. Better living is possible through mass protest.

When it comes to education, for starters we could demand that corporations and the wealthy just be taxed the way they used to. As economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez note in a 2007 study for the Journal of Economic Perspectives, "The progressivity of the U.S. federal tax system at the top of the income distribution has declined dramatically since the 1960s." Indeed, corporate income tax in the 1950s represented one of every four dollars in federal tax revenues. Now it's more like one of every 10 tax dollars.

In California, thanks to Proposition 13, commercial real estate is not even taxed at current values, but at the value of property at the time of purchase. That's potentially several billion a year in lost revenue dollars, as the California Federation of Teachers and others have documented. The state's oil industry also pays no tax on oil they extract from California ground. Say goodbye to another billion dollars a year.

Of course, everyone knows there's also plenty of money in the world's largest defense budget. For fiscal year 2010, President Obama seeks $663.8 billion for the Pentagon. Incredibly, that's just slightly less than what the rest of the world combined spends on military expenditures. Yet in the political mainstream military spending remains largely the great unmentionable when the topic is funds for social programs.

Certainly there are many innovative ways to fund schools and social programs. But perhaps the larger issue really is what kind of society do we want? Is the so-called American Dream only about the ability of a few to acquire wild excesses of wealth, while tens of millions of others struggle against a dark backdrop of washed-out dreams and growing economic insecurity? Is the only realistic perspective one of a society on an endless downslide, pouring hundreds of billions into a global military-industrial empire while chanting dreary mantras to domestic austerity?

"Obama is going to be a mediocre president--which means, in our time, a dangerous president," warned historian Howard Zinn in one of his last essays (The Nation, Jan. 25, 2010), "unless there is some national movement to push him in a better direction."

The March 4 Day of Action suggests the power and possibility of such a national movement. Constituting one of the largest student mobilizations in decades, we would be wise to heed the spirit and message of this new generation of student activists. Like their predecessors in 1970, the younger generation once again has something important to say.

Anything is possible if you fight for it.

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