why do students sometimes lead social change?

(Cincinnati) At several critical points during the past century, college students have been at the vanguard of social change. Their agendas have not always been desirable; fascism, for example, had a student wing. But student activism is an important phenomenon. I think four frames of reference are most common for explaining it:

Age effects: Traditionally, most college students have been young. During young adulthood, individuals become aware of the social world but are still forming their identities and opinions. That gives them a certain critical detachment that is favorable to radical activism. They are also not overly burdened by experiences of political failure. Using that framework, we would expect younger adults consistently to be more active.

Generational effects: People who come of age during the same historical moment may form a shared and lasting identity as members of a given generation. The classic example (analyzed by Karl Mannheim in his seminal article) is the experience of being drafted into WWI. With this framework in mind, we might presume, for example, that German college students became highly active after 1965 because they shared the experience of growing up in prosperous homes with suppressed memories of the Nazi past. People born around the same time in contexts as different as Germany, Japan, and the Soviet Union might even share a common generational identity (e.g., as children of The Sixties) if some of their formative experiences were similar.

Historical effects: Major events can affect people differently depending on their social circumstances. For instance, when a war breaks out, only the young single men may be drafted. A budget crisis can cause the government to cut funds for higher education; then college students see their fees go up. With this framework in mind, we would expect college students to become activated soon after major events affect them specifically.

Class effects: College students come disproportionately from middle-class or wealthy homes. Thanks to college, they are destined for positions in the top half of the income distribution. We might then interpret college student activism as “bourgeois” activism and ask why the bourgeoisie is, or is not, activated at a given moment.

I would like to add a fifth type of explanation, derived from some thoughts in Offe (1985). College students may face specific material circumstances that encourage–or discourage–them from being politically active. These circumstances are variables that will influence students’ levels and forms of engagement even of we hold age, generation, class, and historical moment constant. In other words, these are consequences of how college is organized socially.

Offe argued that certain demographic groups predominated in the New Social Movements of the 1970s and 1980s, such as Second Wave feminism and environmentalism. Two especially active groups were “housewives” (his word) and college students. He proposed that both groups were exposed to explicit discipline that provoked them to criticize social norms. Married women faced explicit coercion from their husbands; students, from their universities and parents. Yet both enjoyed a degree of flexibility about how to employ their time. That meant that they were able to protest if they wanted to.

I think we can elaborate on these explanations. Typically, college students who attend large institutions along with many other full-time students experience the following material circumstances:

  • A great deal of fluid social interaction, not limited to a nuclear family or work unit. That means that students can easily find and select into activist groups.
  • A concentrated population of other youth, which attracts political actors looking for support. Politicians speak on campuses; they don’t go around to fast food franchises hoping to talk to all the service workers.
  • Some useful non-cash assets for social-movement participation, such as flexible time, access to information and ideas, and connections to well-positioned adults.
  • A significant level of protection for free speech, especially as compared to workers in for-profit enterprises (and often in state bureaucracies).
  • Institutions designed for political discourse and communication, such as student newspapers and governments.
  • Some encouragement, via the curriculum, to think critically.
  • Some ability to choose courses of study and career pathways, which they can use as leverage over parents and universities. For instance, a student may be able to threaten to go into social work instead of accounting and then negotiate with tuition-paying parents. Threatening to drop out may also offer leverage.

If these factors matter, then we would expect the level of college student activism to vary when they change. For instance, if students lose their ability to choose courses of study because the job market is bad, they will have less leverage. If their freedom of speech is reduced, that will either suppress activism or serve as a form of explicit discipline that prompts them to revolt.

See also basic theories of civic developmentthe New Social Movements of the seventies, eighties, and today and to what extent can colleges promote upward mobility.  Reference: Offe, Claus, “New Social Movements: Challenging the Boundaries of Institutional Politics,” Social Research, vol. 52, no. 1 (Winter 1985), pp. 817-68.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.