The Responsibility of the Student
The Responsibility of the Student
“America is now in considerable part more a formal political democracy than a democratic social structure, and even the formal political mechanics are weak.”
- C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite, 1956
The spark that would light the social and cultural movements of the 1960s was yet to be—the match, not yet struck. A young University of Michigan student, Tom Hayden, would receive his Master’s Degree, expanding on the work laid out by “the oracle of the New Left,” C. Wright Millls.
Mills wrote of many things, including the rising wealth inequality and an existential crisis that defined the generation compressed by the White Collar culture. In 1951, Mills wrote,
The white collar people slipped quietly into modern society. Whatever history they have is a history without events; whatever common interests they have do not lead to unity; whatever future they have will not be of their own making.
It was a culture that Tom Hayden would boldly reject.
On 15 June, 1962, Hayden’s learning spilled over from a world of intellectual posturing to a recognition of shift in consciousness. He published an urgent plea for the youth to accept responsibility for themselves and their future. The manifesto, written for the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), declared the time had come for the youth to confront the “loneliness, estrangement, isolation,” the “dominant tendencies” that could not be overcome by technological advances and could not be shattered by simple adjustments in personal outlook. The time had come for the “love of man [to] overcome the idolatrous worship of things by man.” This would become known as the Port Huron Statement.
This rising youth would bemoan the University’s capture by special interests and political elitism; it would condemn the behavior of the servile intellectuals and the calculating machinery of the disciplinary culture:
Our professors and administrators sacrifice controversy to public relations; their curriculums change more slowly than the living events of the world; their skills and silence are purchased by investors in the arms race; passion is called unscholastic.
It was the task of this rising youth, then, to challenge the corruption at its root. It was the responsibility of the youth to ensure that the “national policies and national apathy” were reversed. That meant not a quiet dialogue, nor a cowardly seminar, but that the University itself would be transformed into a “community of controversy.” The students would make a habit out of questioning, and reject the thin chastity of the Cold War Culture. Their future would be of their own making.
Eight years later, at the peak of this movement, the president of the University of Maryland would contemptuously dismiss these young dissidents as “bums blowing up the campuses.” The student, asking questions that the Masters could not conjure up answers for, was not to be rewarded. Instead, the courageous student was to be made an example. When students at Boston University were gathering to protest an increase of military recruitment efforts on the campus during the height of the Vietnam War, the president of the University, John Silber, called in the police to break up the demonstrations. A bitter rival of John Silber’s, Professor Howard Zinn spoke truth about power and told the students that they were disturbing the war.
The student today faces new challenges. The University’s openness and the democratizing force of education are under attack. It is being transformed into an entity which mirrors the obedience and discipline of the Marine Corps. Green Party candidate Jill Stein recognizes a dark mechanism of the past at work, when she condemned the facade of the student debt crisis for generating “indentured servitude.” The capture of the University by the Corporate Hand could be reversed immediately by forgiving the debts, liberating the student from the webs of administration and years of burden, encouraging challenges to power and critical thinking, and nourishing a cultural richness, which is free from economic ideology and cut loose from the mediocre ethic of the status quo. “Business as usual” must be rejected.
In undertaking the task of liberating the University, the concept of a “good student” must also be recaptured. The student is someone who will question things, challenge the tyranny of conventional wisdom, and explore the tributaries and divergent paths, in search of any history that might be hidden, deliberately or by fault of the less diligent scholar. The student will, in her search, dissolve the walls of isolation, and emerge from the abyss of her loneliness. The curiosity that drives the student will serve as a lantern to guide her, as she moves from what is known and into the deep cavern of uncertainty.
There’s more. The student will also dissolve the barrier between what is discovered in books and what is discovered in the real world, and will use that knowledge to animate a narrative of new consciousness. The moral wrongs accepted by the intellect of yesterday will not go unnoticed by the diligent pupil. Those failings must, then, not be ignored, or analyzed from a distance. Those moral wrongs, which stain the scholarship, must be engaged with courage. No amount of reading can teach courage. That is a choice to be made. Whether she will vigorously defend the truth, or allow herself the shame of defending the lie is up to her.
The lies have their guardians, of course. A power structure that can only be sustained by hiding information succeeds in doing so through a variety of tactics. This includes massive propaganda, a re-writing of history, and simple exhaustion. The classroom must be a place of work, not a place of discovery. The pursuit of questions, which only leisure allows (most time spent away from work is recovery, not leisure), must be pushed out of daily life. Petty assignments and obligation must take priority over addressing the problems of society. The intellectual masters must conceal the truth, and scholarship must be hijacked for safekeeping.
This is not a new development. It is very common for the intellectual to find himself in a position that provides the dominant political class the necessary material to limit the function of democracy. Christopher Hitchens’ justification of the invasion of Afghanistan is a good example of this. His reasoning? “The U.S. government actually grows opium in Turkey for our domestic painkiller market. Why not give Afghans a slice of the business?” (Vanity Fair, November 2004). What wasn’t mentioned was that the concern of Afghanistan’s population wasn’t opium trading with the U.S. Government. In September 2009, he wrote to Slate Magazine. He wanted to remind the American people that “We’re in a long war against Islamic Terrorism.”
If Hitchens had been serious about Afghanistan’s freedom, he would have written about the voices of the Afghani people. Perhaps he would have written about Malalai Joya, who the National Post called the “bravest woman in Afghanistan.” A considerable anti-war movement had been reaching a peak at the time. In an article published in November 2009, it was reported that she had said:
It is better that the foreign masters leave my country. ...If they let us have a little bit of peace, we know what to do with our destiny. It's your government that supports the mafia-corrupt system of [Afghanistan President] Hamid Karzai. Canada is just a tool in the hands of the U.S. government (The National Post, November 2009).
This is not the concern of an intellectual like Hitchens, who denounced Islamic culture as “...fall[ing] under the dominance of stultified and conservative forces to whom everything depends on an affirmation of blind faith” (The Atlantic, 2007). He was an articulate, brilliant and charismatic figure, whose love of literature and knowledge is considerable and admirable. He was also a vulgar propagandist, who contributed enormously to the liberal complicity withUnited States terror in the Middle East.
An intellectual who is seeking to promote democracy will tell the truth. This cannot happen, because the population, then, would challenge the shaky foundations on which power stands. It is not in human nature to thirst for blood. War is only permissible in our minds if it is perceived as a necessary evil. It is the task of the intellectual to make it appear so. It is the task of the teacher to lie to his student.
It is worth repeating, in light of the mountain of challenges they will face:
For the student, today, the task remains as it always has: She will question the world around her. She will, in her search for truth, ask for more than the ideas that are handed down to her. She will discover a history of which she is a part—a hidden truth that is only discovered and never taught. She will act on that knowledge, for she knows that the classroom is a small part of her learning. It is only the beginning of her study. The student will seek, not only to understand the world, but to liberate the world through understanding.
Anderson, Terry H. The Movement and the Sixties: [protest in America from Greenboro to Wounded Knee]. New York [u.a.: Oxford Univ., 1995. Print.
Mills, C. Wright. White Collar; the American Middle Classes. New York: Oxford UP, 1951. N. pag. Print.
Goodspeed, Peter. "'Bravest Woman in Afghanistan' Spearheads Anti-war Movement." 'Bravest Woman in Afghanistan' Spearheads Anti-war Movement. National Post, 21 Nov. 2009. Web. 07 Apr. 2013.
Hayden, Tom. "Port Huron Statement of the Students for a Democratic Society,1962." Reading. Port Huron Statement of the Students for a Democratic Society,1962. Web. 2013.
Hitchens, Christopher. "Afghanistan's Dangerous Bet." 2004. Arguably: Essays. New York: Twelve, 2011. N. pag. Print.
Hitchens, Christopher. "The Case of Orientalism." 2007. Arguably: Essays. New York: Twelve, 2011. N. pag. Print.
Hitchens, Christopher. "We're in a Long War against Islamic Terrorism." Slate Magazine. Slate, 7 Sept. 2009. Web. 07 Apr. 2013.
Stephen Wallace is an organizer in Southern Maryland. He is part of the Calvert County chapter of Maryland's Health is a Human Right Campaign. Graduating High School in 2010, he began a vigorous self-study period, frequenting the library. From 2010-12 he attended the College of Southern Maryland, and occasionally attending lectures at the University of Maryland, College Park. He is a pupil of theology under a local priest, Ken Phelps, who is also involved in many social justice concerns.