The Role of Students in the Age of Unrest

Author: Nick Clyde, Johns Hopkins



This past weekend, I attended the People’s Climate March in New York City. Promoted as “the largest climate march in history,” the demonstration attracted over three hundred thousand people. I encountered a diverse range of people: Native Americans, victims of Hurricane Sandy, labor union workers, food justice promoters, veterans, LGBTQ advocates, and students. The march aimed to bring these these various groups togethers as activists making a united demand: climate change needs to be addressed— now. The event was extremely successful. With a great energy invigorating the crowd, there was a strong feeling of solidarity. Because of the large turnout and diverse representation, the march felt like a success, even if it was only a small step in the right direction.

Over the past few years, there have been an increasing number of large protests and strikes like the People’s Climate March. Beginning with Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity in 2010, which drew over 200,000, a culture of unrest has been spreading across America. 2011 saw both widespread protests in Wisconsin over a bill which reduced collective bargaining rights (100,000 protesters) and the creating of the Occupy movement, which sparked protests and sit-ins nationwide as well as multiple marches on Wall Street (one drawing over 50,000 people). In September 2012, when the city refused to expand art and music programs in underfunded schools, the Chicago Teachers Union went on strike. Those protests attracted both large numbers as well as national media attention. Finally, this year has given rise not only to the People’s Climate March, but also to protests in Ferguson, Missouri. In Ferguson, a policeman shot and killed an unarmed teenager named Michael Brown. A long, tense standoff between protesters and police followed;155 arrests and calls for institutional reform were made.


These protests and movements are a symptom of cultural uneasiness. Frances Fox Piven writes that “we are at the beginning of a new period of mass protests that will reshape American politics;” a New Protest Era, as she calls it. In this Age of Unrest, we will begin to see more and more protests reaching the scale of the People’s Climate March. The citizenry is beginning to understand that the tidal wave of campaign money unleashed by the Citizens United decision, which “gave corporations and unions the green light to spend unlimited sums on ads,” means that voting is no longer an effective political statement. To make your voice heard, you need to take to the streets.

The US last saw widespread, mass protests in the late sixties, when the anti-Vietnam War movement was in full swing. Students played a pivotal role in that movement, hosting numerous protests on college campuses across the country. Thousands of students practiced civil disobedience by burning their draft cards; some even lost their lives in the tragic shootings at Kent State. Why were students so involved in the antiwar movement? There are a few reasons. Students were not yet in the workforce, so they probably did not fear losing their jobs. They had much more free time to explore their beliefs, to discuss issues with other students, and to organize protests.  Furthermore, just by virtue of being students, they were constantly introduced to new ideas and new ways of thinking. This kind of environment encourages questioning the status quo and initiating change. The most important factor, however, is that college students represent the newest generation entering the “real world.” They are inheriting the world from the previous generation and they have two choices: keep it the way it is, or implement some form of change. Still young and full of energy, students have the greatest political will to change the world, for it is a world they will be dealing with for the rest of their lives. These factors make students a radical force for change.

But what role will students play in this new Age of Unrest? There is no doubt that the universities students attend today are strikingly different from the universities of the late sixties. There is an increasing sense among students and their parents today that majoring in the humanities will result in poor job prospects. As a result, more and more people are flocking to engineering, economics, and business programs. As an engineering student, I can say that these types of programs are not the kind that teach you to question authority or explore your beliefs. Everything you’re taught is concrete and mathematical; there is no room for inquiry. Furthermore, as each student’s workload becomes larger and more difficult, leisure time is more likely spent recovering from stress with social activities or Netflix than advocating for change. Students are also spending more and more time thinking about job prospects, entering the workforce as interns as early as sophomore year and missing classes senior year to go to job interviews. With greater ties to the workforce, less free time to organize, and less interest in the humanities, students of this generation are very different than the students of the sixties.

Despite all this, there is still hope. Students came out in droves for the People’s Climate March. From Saint Mary’s to Penn to Columbia, students were willing to give up their Sunday to show the world they support climate change action. And just this week, hundreds of high school students in Denver walked out of their classes to protest a new proposal by their school board to “focus history education on topics that promote citizenship, patriotism and respect for authority.” Students are still inheriting the world, regardless of how much free time they have or what they are studying. If there is something about that world that seems wrong, they will fight to change it. If we are to see any real change in this new Age of Unrest, students must once again play an important role.

Nick is a senior at Johns Hopkins.


1 Comment

  1. Hey, you should really check out Beverly Silver’s book Forces of Labor and see how these waves of unrest align with shifts in global hegemony and capital flows. Very interesting. Great piece.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s