Wednesday, February 3, 2010

UC Protests as "Tantrums"

In a post on Concurring Opinions about the recent protests on UC campuses, Deven Desai wrote:
I love California, and I love the University of California. I am saddened by the recent financial problems the state and the entire education system faces. But I am more upset by what seems to be a failure of the education system: people who think 60s style protests are useful and wise responses to problems they helped create.

Sit-ins, threats, throwing food at Regents, and chants of the “What do we want? X! When do we want it? Now!” ilk remind me of a five year old throwing a tantrum; not intelligent people trying to change the system and take responsibility for their role in the problem. When I was at Berkeley, a professor noted that protesting the first Iraq war (especially in the Bay Area) was not as effective as the same thousands of people writing to Congress members and being clear where their donations and votes would go in the future. The same applies to the education funding problem.
As I point out in the book, public contention like this may not be the most effective way to change policies.  That was true even in the 1960s, of course.  But putting aside the self-fulfillment and solidarity benefits protesting students might experience, I don't think we should liken them to spoiled children.  Public activism of this nature still has its place.  Letter writing and its modern-day equivalents -- email, text, and tweets -- may not be terribly effective either.  "Astro-turf" groups and spammers often lead such campaigns.  Legislators must wonder about the bona fides of the vocal majority.  The only real, physical measure of public discontent may be right out on the street or on campus.

One can certainly take issue with some of the students' repertoires.  Occupations during classes or exams, as well as violence, should be discouraged.  But remember that in 2006 Galludet students actually forced leaders to choose a new president by staging public protests on campus.  Student protests are not a manifestation of the "failure of the education system."  They may be manifestations that it is functioning after all.  

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