The official student newspaper of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire since 1923.

The Spectator

The official student newspaper of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire since 1923.

The Spectator

The official student newspaper of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire since 1923.

The Spectator

Muted by credit cards

As a group, college students can wield tremendous power.

Recall the college students who changed the world when they rallied in Tiananmen Square. From that protest emerged a timeless image, one capturing the very spirit of nonviolent resistance, the man fearlessly standing in the path of a tank.

In the struggle for equality in the U.S., college students played a vital role. They rode the busses, waited at the lunch counters to be served and marched in Washington. College students wrote letters, held signs, linked arms and sang songs and they refused to obey laws that were unjust and unfairly enforced.

In 1969, a group of African American college students seized control of Willard Straight Hall on the campus of Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. They did so to protest that school’s racist policies.

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One year earlier, in November of 1968, a group of black and white students at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh refused to leave Dempsey Hall when the chancellor denied them the opportunity to speak with him about the unequal treatment of students of color.

Nearly 30 years later, I graduated from Cornell University and today I work for the University of Wisconsin. There is no question in my mind that both my alma mater and my workplace are better today because of courageous students like Vada Harris from UW-Oshkosh and Eric Evans from Cornell University, who risked everything to say “no” to injustice. I owe them my respect, admiration and gratitude.

Is there something about college students that makes them more prone to becoming effective agents of social change? Maybe it is because many college-age youth experience a sort of rebirth when they enter college. In college, many find a new voice, one they had not known in their previous schooling. College students read books they have never seen before, they are often encouraged to ask questions and to challenge their teachers, and they learn that the “truth” exists at the intersection of diverse perspectives. This reawakening is fueled by a sense of idealism combined with optimism and seemingly boundless energy, with just a touch of feeling invincible.

Maybe another reason for college students’ propensity for social engagement has been the fact that most don’t own houses, don’t have large car payments, don’t have children who look to them for food and shelter, and don’t have other crushing financial obligations.

Has there been a drop in the number and scope of college student protests? One could point to the college students at the University of California-San Diego who recently banded together to protest their university’s stance on race relations. Many credit the numerous “get out the vote” campaigns on college campuses for helping to propel Barack Obama to the presidency. There is no doubt that college students still play a vital role worldwide in shaping our social and political landscape but, based on my observations, I would say “yes,” the number, size and scope of college student activism, in the U.S. in particular, has shrunk in recent times.

If this in fact is true, could one blame the Playstation 2, the Wii or World of Warcraft? Maybe in unstable economic times people retreat to their comfort zones and look for fewer opportunities to put their own “lot in life” in jeopardy for others’ sake.

I think the corporate world plays a role in turning students away from advocacy. Organizations like the credit card companies invite students (often as soon as they arrive in their freshman residence halls) to take on debt. In addition, cell phone companies, the fashion industry and automobile manufacturers join forces in aggressively pressing students to focus on acquiring possessions and taking on financial obligations.

As young people use their credit cards to pay for their iPhones and the latest fashions, they inadvertently create a situation where they are beholden to a larger system.

In order to maintain good credit scores and to manage growing debts, students are less likely to participate in activities such as taking a few days off from school to join a protest march or a sit-in. For what it is worth, the federal government began guaranteeing student loans in 1965, the height of the civil rights era, a movement engineered in large part by college students.

I am not a conspiracy theorist, but a critically minded person might, at the very least, consider the role the federal government might have played in quieting student protests. Many students go to college on federally subsidized student loans (me included). Could it be true that our government, either overtly or as an “unintended” consequence, suppressed the collective power of college students by saddling them with debt, not just during their college years, but for the life of the loan, which could last for decades?

In one of his many inspiring speeches, Martin Luther King Jr. said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Dr. King knew that the path toward human dignity, equality and opportunity would not be traveled easily and that many would attempt to thwart such noble efforts along the way.

Dr. King also believed that the “universe” was on the side of those who advocated for human rights and dignity. As a result, no matter how great the hurdle, how daunting the task or how enormous the cost, in the long run, those who embraced justice would prevail. Right now on this campus there are students who are risking their own quality of life to bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice. I applaud them for this, and I thank you for thinking about how filling out that credit card offer might lessen your willingness or ability to speak out against injustice.

deKoven is an assistant professor of education studies and a guest columnist for The Spectator.

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