Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Student Inactivism

Students used to be a militant bunch. Remember the Kent State massacre of 1970? Although only four years old at the time, I know what happened. US National Guardsmen shot dead four innocent students and wounded nine others during a mass protest against the American invasion of Cambodia (Figure 51.1). The military operation, conducted on the opposite side of the globe, did not disadvantage any of the protesters personally, but that was immaterial. The students could see the wider picture, and their activism stemmed not from expediency or self-interest, but from steadfast moral principle. Tragic though the outcome was, a clear message was sent to the White House: millions of young people disagreed with foreign policy, and they would not stand to have their intelligence insulted.

Figure 51.1: A student protester lies wounded at Kent State University, Ohio on 4th May, 1970.

Copyright © 2012 Bettman/CORBIS

British undergraduates, too, have a proud history of passionate student activism. When I (crash-) landed at university in the mid-eighties, the campus was bursting with (mainly left-wing) firebrands, all spitting bricks at injustices real or merely perceived. Those were the days of Live Aid, Thatcherism, CND, violent Irish republicanism and London street riots. There was plenty to shout about, whatever one’s views (Figure 51.2).

Figure 51.2: Every one of these lapel badges was familiar to 1980s’ students.

Copyright © 2012 London Metropolitan University

As things were then, so they are today. Individual issues come and go, but fundamental politics is as much a corruption of human ethics as ever. In Britain alone, the debt crisis threatens to impoverish future generations; and the corrupt, profligate, anti-democratic European Union is succeeding in destroying hard-won self-determination where Hitler failed – and without a single shot needing to be fired. The likes of Mahatma Gandhi, Apostolos Santas and Nelson Mandela were prepared to sacrifice their lives in the name of representative self-government; and yet, today, the British people relinquish basic liberties to a foreign power with their brains switched off and eyes tight shut.

Why, then, when standing so close to the precipice, are today’s students silent? With the exception of a half-baked objection to education funding cuts in 2010, there has been barely a squeak of dissent from British campuses. What has changed?

Forty years ago, only 5% of British school-leavers attended university. The present figure is close to 40%, despite students being demonstrably no more capable. Consequently, if the drop-out rate is not to rocket, academic standards must be lowered. Furthermore, extra funding, on a massive scale, becomes urgent. Given the unprecedented level of public debt, there is no chance of such costs being met by the taxpayer. 21st-century students are obliged to pay their own tuition fees, inevitably by means of (subsidized) loans. Anyone quitting prematurely leaves higher education with an unsettled loan agreement instead of a degree certificate. Reminiscent of the brainless commitment to mixed-ability teaching in British schools in the 1960s and 70s, the most able undergraduates spend half their time freewheeling, while the least able – a whopping 9% – play out a twelve-month stay of execution prior to being thrown out, debt-ridden and demoralized.

As a result of ‘dumbing down’, today’s students are not only, on average, less intellectually astute than those of previous generations but, also, far less politically aware. How do I know? Well, I completed two university stints – 1985-9 and 2006-9 – and feel well qualified to judge the difference. ‘Uni’ has become a comfortable rite of passage, more social than educational. During my second course, whenever I entered the campus library, the majority of its occupants seemed more concerned with social networking than with cerebral endeavour. Political activism did not even register, which struck me as ironic, as Facebook is a godsend to any parties aiming to orchestrate mass action.

So I ask: why are so many young people now being encouraged to attend university at all? Is it to prevent unemployment figures going stratospheric, thereby reflecting adversely on politicians? Perhaps it is. Back in the 1950s, millions of British school-leavers were paid to complete apprenticeships. Today, it is largely the reverse: in order to equip themselves, both intellectually and vocationally, teenagers are made to pay one institution with a vast sum of money borrowed from another. The debt mountain thus grows and grows, and, of course, the taxpayers of tomorrow are the students of today. Former U.S. president Herbert Hoover (1874-1964), paraphrasing Matthew 5:5, foretold the future thus:

‘Blessed are the young, for they shall inherit the national debt.’

That was 1936. The difference between then and now is that today’s apathetic students dwell in ignorance and sink into debt as the terms of their future subjugation are set in stone  outside their own land (Figure 50.3).

Figure 51.3: More and more commentators now refer to the EU as the ‘Fourth Reich’.

Copyright © 2012 Nikone Le Fou

Come on, students, spit bricks – if you still know how.

Copyright © 2012 Paul Spradbery

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