The student activist: a headband-wearing, trouser-flaring, banner-bearing pioneer of emancipation throughout our recent history, a period riddled by blatant injustices. This archetype doesn’t stem from nowhere. It is a fact that the leadership of students was paramount to many pivotal protests of the 20th century. Nevertheless, there is an emerging perception that student activism died with the birth of the millennial generation.
It goes without saying that student activism owes a lot of its reputation, as an instrument of real and visible change, to the student-led protest movements of the 60s, 70s and 80s. The US civil rights movements were fuelled by youth leaders and student activists, and the same is true of many mainstream movements against foreign intervention and nuclear armament in the decades following.
To take a local example, in 1972 the activism of Gordon Brown during his time at the University of Edinburgh saw him elected as the second-ever student rector, a role historically restricted to notable professionals. From this position, Brown placed relentless pressure on the university’s governing bodies to divest from companies affiliated with the apartheid regime in South Africa.
Admittedly, these types of protest that epitomise student activism and its historic reputation are harder to come by these days. It would be convenient to attribute this to a lack of political engagement amongst modern students or, better yet, the idea that injustices within universities and wider society have now been effectively eradicated.
In practical terms, neither of these perceptions suffice. Needless to say, there are plenty of reasons why students might be deterred from participating in activism, but they have far more to do with the realities of student life than with an apathetic attitude. When you’re paying £9,250 a year for a degree identical to most graduate job-hunters in the same game, it’s unsurprising that many students are forced to devote their extra-curricular efforts to activities that look pretty in bullet-points on a CV.
Nonetheless, by virtue of ongoing student fervour for politics and justice, plenty of students are still involved in activism. The difference is that it has arisen in a variety of new and updated forms.
For instance, we see plenty of activism take place on the relatively new platform provided by social media. While commentators who insist on the decline of student activism might label this an ineffective, detached means of political engagement, social media can be an instrumental catalyst in bringing more sporadic movements together.
Black Lives Matter, for example, first appeared as a hashtag on Twitter in July 2013, and has resonated with many who opposed the proliferation of racist attitudes on campuses and within society. In a series of protests across American universities in 2015, the Black Lives Matter movement was cited as an inspiration by many student demonstrators. Their calls for the resignation of senior figures, who responded inadequately to racist incidents on campus, have also been met with success.
It is also important to recognise that a key difference between student activism of the past and the present is founded in differing objectives. This is the plain result of changing contexts. Historic student movements, that set the benchmark for activism, were typically those that were geared towards effecting legislative change. It follows that success or failure is easily observable; if legislation is altered in line with the demands of protesters, the movement has achieved its objective.
Undoubtedly, this type of change represents tremendous progress for issues of social justice. But injustice doesn’t stop at legislation. In modern contexts, many student-led initiatives and movements seek to tackle the more insidious, de-facto injustices that subsist through prejudice and attitudes. The ‘No One Asks for It’ campaign, launched at the University of Edinburgh, for example, strives to raise awareness about consent, whilst tackling sexual harassment on campus by offering ‘active bystander’ training to students. This innovative form of activism takes practical initiative, and is of equal importance for combatting injustice.
Besides, where abundant legislative change is still required, we still see the practical demonstrations that are the historical staple of student activism. This is true of universities and wider society, and in both cases, it is students who are on the front line. Following the tragic shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February, students walked out of classes to join a wave of protests calling upon the US government to enact immediate change to current gun legislation. At a more local level and at universities, Edinburgh has provided adequate examples of student activism in the past weeks alone, with many participating in picket lines and rallies in support of the UCU industrial action.
Student activism may have changed, but it hasn’t burned out. Different times present us with different issues, and new means with which to combat them. Student activists have not only negotiated these changes, but have cultivated a spirit of passion and vigour that desperately yearns for the betterment of our society.
Image: Wikimedia Commons