A Comparison of Student Activism in American History

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Student activism is definitely not a new phenomenon. All across the world students have been protesting for decades for a number of different reasons. In the United States the peak of student protests can be traced back to the 1960’s and the 1970’s, years in which the country was fighting a war in Vietnam and was dealing with the civil rights movement, perhaps the most significant and impactful movement in modern history.  At this time large numbers of citizens, especially young college students, were protesting against the war, against racial and gender inequalities, and against a government that did not seem to support the rights of all people. Students were marching to express their disappointment, to embrace diversity supporting people of all races and of all gender orientations, and they were also doing it to show their reluctance towards a country that was sending its young men to die in an unjust war. The political involvement of young people was seen as a good thing by some, but other people did not approve their actions and did not share their views. Therefore many people condemned students’ engagement in matters that were considered too complicated for their young ages and their limited experience. These college students had a vision of a world free of violence, one in which their lives were not put in jeopardy by higher powers that did not operate in the greater interest of the people.  

Similar motives are behind students’ protests today. One of the events that shook this country recently was the high school shooting in Parkland, Florida, which saw 17 citizens, both students and school personnel, lose their lives. Shortly after February 14th, the day of this tragedy, some students initiated a movement called #neveragain, and started to publicly express their opinions, hopes, and desires regarding gun control policies, security in schools, and overall sharing their resentment with the rest of the country.  Like the protests of the sixties and seventies, today’s students are advocating for their lives and marching against a government that appears to prioritize other interests instead of protecting the people. Also, like in previous decades we are witnessing a split in the ways modern school protests are seen by the public. However, the ways in which people approve or disapprove of student activism, and the reasons behind their opinion, may differ between these two historical periods. The aim of this paper is to examine those differences and to answer this question: how has American public opinion about student activism differed between the late 1960s protests, when compared with the protests of today?

I argue that Americans today are more willing to listen and support young people’s actions and to protest by their side. I believe that modern society feels the threats of violence more tangibly when compared with how a large section of the population did in the late 1960s. We are seeing things happening almost in real time thanks to the Internet and social media, both causes and  responses to violence can appear to be random, and the general perception is that no one is truly safe anywhere. However, despite the fact that people are tired of mourning young students who lose their lives in such a tragic manner, there is still a significant portion of the population who believe that these high school students are too young to have opinions, and that their collective voice should not matter despite being silent eye-witnesses of the reckless violence that has caused some of them to die on a regular school day. Therefore, we see similar sentiments to what we have seen in the past. To support my argument I will look at how the “Free Speech Movement” at Berkeley College in 1964 and the shooting at Kent State University in 1970 were viewed by the public and compare them to the perception that Americans have regarding students’ involvement today, focusing on the mass school shooting in Parkland High, Florida.

These three important chapters of American history are very different from one another, but they also have some crucial similarities. Between 1964 and 1965 the Free Speech Movement was a precursor in bringing political and social matters to college campuses. Berkeley College student protests during the Civil Rights era started to facilitate the road for future movements against the Vietnam War and other future controversial issues. In 1971 at Kent State University, students organized on campus against President Richard Nixon’s decision to continue the War in Vietnam and to invade Cambodia. Students brought their protest into the streets and started what would become a four-day heated protest.  The protests took place both on and off campus, and eventually culminated in the killing of four students- who were murdered by the Ohio Army National Guard. In February 2018, the high school shooting in Parkland, Florida, initiated another student protest that resonated worldwide, and the underlying reasons for this protest are once again political. Students are arguing in favor of more rigid gun control policies, and in this attempt they are inevitably going against the interests of many lobbies and National Rifle Association (NRA) supporters. In each of these cases students are involved in matters that are often left to the judgement of adults and experts, and all of them had and are having a great impact on society, touching the souls of many, and enraging many others.

When analyzing polls from these three different student protests, we notice that in this day and age society’s approval of student involvement has changed compared to the 1960s and 1970s. Concerning the public opinion of Americans in the late 1960s, a poll from 1969 shows that only 34% of the interviewees believed that white student protesters could be trusted, while 54% believed in being careful when dealing with them (Justifying Violence, 1969). Polls and articles of that time use the words “student disturbances”, “violence”, and “riots” much more frequently than they use words like “activism” and “protests.” This is in large part due to the fact that the racial implications, and the issues of segregation and inequality, helped to further complicate the social context, creating a challenge in the comparison between public opinion at the time versus today. Another survey from 1970 asked women if they were in agreement with the  student protests or if they were opposed, and as a result 65% of women from that poll declared to be somewhat or strongly opposed (Virginia Slims American Women’s Poll 1970, Aug, 1970). These statistics are relevant not only to show the public opinion of the time, but also to further understand the threat of violence perceived by many Americans when thinking about student protests.

In a recent poll from March 2018, we find out that a large percentage of the American population is supportive (64% of interviewees approved) of Parkland students arguing for themselves on TV and in other media, and the poll also shows that for the most part the public thinks that these students are advocating for issues they truly believe in (Monmouth University, 2018). Similarly, a survey regarding approval or disapproval of students protesting in favor of stricter gun laws reported a 63% rate of approval (Quinnipiac University, 2018). Another recent CBS News poll regarding gun policies and school safety also shows that the majority of Americans believe that students should be actively involved in activism and protests, and that their voice matters a great deal in order to change things for the better. More than six in ten Americans believe young people should get involved while only a third think that adults should handle such issues without their intervention (De Pinto, Backus, Salvato, 2018).

Some controversies regarding the Free Speech Movement revolve around the nature and the ultimate goal of educational institutions. In part, the movement found the oppositions of those who maintained that the ultimate goal of public universities was to educate the students, and therefore believed in certain restrictions to freedom of speech (Cohen, Zelnich, Litwak, 2002). However, using the words of President Sproul, as stated in the book The Free Speech Movement: Reflections on Berkeley in the 1960s, University administrators argued that:

“The function of the University is to seek and to transmit knowledge and to train students in the process whereby truth is to be made known. To convert, or to make converts, is alien and hostile to this dispassionate duty. Where it becomes necessary, in performing the function of a university, to consider political, social, or sectarian movements, they are dissected and examined – not taught, and the conclusion left, with no tipping of the scales, to the logic of the facts. The University is founded upon faith in intelligence and knowledge and it must defend their free operation…” (Cohen, Zelnich, Litwak, 2002).

President Sproul also pointed out the fact that the State should protect the rights of a free people, guaranteeing people’s freedom as well as the freedom of the press (Cohen, Zelnich, Litwak, 2002).

Those who criticized and opposed the protesters from Kent State University, arguing that violence and disorder were their main goals, have likely been influenced by the images that mass media was spreading at the time. The journal article Protesting the Invasion of Cambodia: A Case Study of Crowd Behavior and Demonstration Leadership highlights the importance of recognizing who initiates the violence, stating that is often the control agent responsible rather than the crowd (Brown, Lewis, 1998). Therefore, sociologists have come to the conclusion that crowd behavior is strongly affected by the way it is counteracted. In the specific case of Kent State, students may have not found the approval of a large section of the population due to the bad images that were dispersed through television and print media of the time. The public was holding the students responsible for the disorders without considering that they might have been reacting to control agents rather than acting against them.

When comparing these media portrayals with those of modern times, a recent article from The New Yorker, reveals just in its title the two possible causes that are pushing the majority of Americans to support student protests: “Urgency and Frustration” (Writt, 2018). The article written by Emily Writt talks about the attention that Parkland’s students have gained worldwide, and about the support that they are receiving from celebrities and citizens in general. One of the students’ main slogans simply reads “Enough.” Almost everyone can identify with this word, including adults and adolescents, regardless of race, gender, or political orientation. For the first time we are witnesses of a protest that the majority of the population can relate to. The issues are internal, scary, and unpredictable, and as naive as it may sound, the solution seems to be more achievable compared to those potential solutions to other issues in the past. Some would argue that if it’s “easy enough” for high school students to see the necessary solutions before us, adults and those in charge ought to be able to understand and implement them as well.

In conclusion, there are a number of reasons why public opinion about student activism has shifted more recently. Although some remain skeptical about student involvement in certain matters, research and public opinion polls indicate that the world is starting to realize the importance of paying attention to young people in a constructive way. After all, students are the next generation that will run this country, and paying attention to their needs now may prove beneficial to us all in the future.



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