On Student Unrest

Generational conflict, generational struggle, has been a recurrent theme throughout history. Unlike class struggle, however, it has rarely been understood or ever studied. Labor movements have a somewhat defined and intelligible history. Student movements, however, have a somewhat vague and transient character. The student status, unlike that of the workman, is temporary, a few short years, and the quantum-like experience in the student movement is over. Nevertheless, seemingly ineffectual student movements have brought about paramount changes in our contemporary world. Social revolution in Russia, China and Burma sprang from student movements, while governments in Korea, Japan and the Sudan have fallen in recent years largely because of massive student dissent. Here then, is a universal phenomenon which challenges our understanding.

To illustrate its historical significance, one must only cite the classic case of the Russian Revolutionary student movement. In the 1860’s and 1870’s several thousand students, inspired by feelings of guilt and responsibility for the backward people, overtly showed their desire to change the establishment. The largest single group among those who were arrested in the back-to-the-people movement, were children of the nobility, who could have availed themselves of the ample openings in the governmental bureaucracy. Receiving no help from the peasants, the students reverted to extreme forms of individual terrorism. And when this also failed, circles of student intellectuals formed the first nuclei of the Social Democratic Party. Lenin aptly said that without the student concern, the workers wouldn’t have achieved social consciousness, and would have progressed no further than the labor parties.

The student unrest of the 1960’s, however, is much more than just a generation gap, an age-old rebelliousness. Today’s ferment is deeper and more intense than ever before. Geographically speaking, the movement has never been more universal. In the jet age, student leaders can be anywhere in the world in a day’s time. All of the world’s students are viewing the same newscasts and reading the same books and periodicals. Youth unrest is an international, almost palpable vivid connection and intimate relationship. Student leaders such as Tom Hayden, “Danny the Red,” Mark Rudd, and Abbie Hoffman are known and lauded the world over. The movement is now something universal and ecumenical; it has donned a cloak of international cu        lture.

One may define a student movement as a congregation of students inspired by aims which they try to explicate in a political ideology and moved by an emotional rebellion in which there is always present a disillusionment with and rejection of the values of the older generation. Moreover, the members of a student movement have the conviction that their generation has a special historical mission to fulfill where the older generation has failed.

But the young, it is becoming clear, are regarded with considerable hatred. Adult anger at the physical superiority of the young has usually been contained by the comforting assumption that eighteen-year olds are least the moral, intellectual and emotional inferiors of their elders. College students have traditionally been viewed as apprentices, almost supplicants. And until recently they accepted their role as dutiful petitioners for entry into the world of adult insight and skill. Student revolutionaries are often called “Rebels without a Program,” and been accused of “inability to see and enjoy the element of absurdity in life.”1 Although the student movement admittedly has no articulated program and does exhibit some vacuity, it is nevertheless founded upon a coalescence of several themes and conditions. It tends to arise in societies which are gerontocratic — that is, where the older generation possesses a disproportionate amount of economic and political power and social status. In addition to this, student movements will not arise unless there is a sense that the older generation has discredited itself and lost its moral standing. Moreover, a student movement tends to arise where political apathy or a sense of helplessness prevails among the people.

But alongside these sociological conditions, some main value themes characterize the student movement. There is a strong stress of Romanticism among many movement participants on a quest for self-expression, often articulated in terms of leading a “free” life — i.e., one not bound by conventional restraints on feeling, experience, communication and expression. This is often coupled with aesthetic interests and a strong rejection of scientific and other highly rational pursuits. Students often express the classic romantic aspiration of “knowing” or “experiencing” “everything.” Another dominant theme of the protest is anti-authoritarianism. The students exhibit a strong antipathy toward arbitrary rule, and centralized decision-making. The anti-authoritarian sentiment is fundamental to the wide-spread campus protests during the

past few years; in most cases, the protests were precipitated by an administrative act which was interpreted as arbitrary.

A third prevalent theme perhaps could be called anti-dogmatism. There is a strong reaction against doctrinaire ideological interpretation of events. Many of the students are quite restless when presented with formulated models of the social order, and specific programs for social change. This underlies most of their antagonism to the varieties of “old left” politics and is one meaning of the oft-quoted (if seriously used) phrase; “You can’t trust anyone over thirty.” A major criticism of society is that it is “hypocritical.” The students display a strong antipathy to self-interested behavior, particularly when it is overlaid by claims of disinterestedness. The older generation, they claim, has “sold out” the values it espouses, and to assume conventional roles of adult life usually leads to increasing self-interestedness, hence selling out, or “phoniness.”

A fourth main value theme characterizing the student movement is anti-institutionalism. The dissent students have a strong distrust of involvement with conventional institutional roles. This is most importantly expressed in the almost universal desire among the highly involved to avoid institutionalized careers. Many of the most committed expect to continue to work fulltime in the “movement” or, alternatively, to become free-lance writers, artists, intellectuals.

(to be continued)