What is the appropriate role for higher education at a time of social activism?

(Posted in Madrid) In the current issue (and available free online) is my article entitled, “Another Time for Freedom? Lessons from the Civil Rights Era for Today’s Campuses,” Liberal Education, Winter 2019, Vol. 105, No. 1.

This is the first of several pending articles in which I explore the interactions between social movements and institutions. My motive is to encourage people who sit in institutional settings to pay attention not only to activists who make demands but also to the movements to which these activists belong. In order to relate appropriately to a given movement, it’s important to assess whether it has robust internal discussions, whether it is a space for learning, how it develops leaders, what norms it enforces on its members, and other such characteristics. Interpreting a movement is valuable whether you want to be a good ally, merely treat the movement fairly, or actively counter it because you oppose its influence.

In this piece, I use as a hook a fascinating New York Times op-ed by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in which he described the movement that had engulfed Historically Black Colleges and Universities by 1961. A sample passage from my article:

In the model of civic action that King describes, college students plug into national social movements that have leaders and organizations outside higher education. The students’ involvement is youth-driven: students recruit other students to participate. …

Like most participants in social movements, the students King describes in the Times essay have transformational goals. They do not aim to modify the policies and practices of existing institutions—such as their own colleges—but to rebuild or reconstitute the whole society. Student activists, King writes, are “seeking to save the soul of America. . . . One day historians will record this student movement as one of the most significant epics of our heritage.” Today, movements like Black Lives Matter and climate activism do not merely advocate specific policies but attempt to fundamentally transform society, from white supremacy to racial equity, or from carbon-dependence to global sustainability.

By contrast, colleges and universities—including the HBCUs of 1961—are institutions. As such, they are inevitably led by people who have extensive experience, who must therefore be older. Institutions can encourage youth voice and can change as a result of social movements. For instance, a range of curricular and policy reforms that promote greater racial equity and diversity can be traced back to the civil rights movement. But institutions will predictably resist more radical transformations. They are not movements; they are targets of movements.

The tension between movements and institutions is inevitable, but higher education has a particular commitment to ideological pluralism and debate. Although pure neutrality is impossible and a misleading ideal, colleges and universities must demonstrate a reasonable degree of impartiality about the contested issues of the day. As academic institutions, they value reflection and “organized skepticism.”11

When today’s colleges and universities go beyond classroom teaching to offer experiential civic education, a typical model involves supporting students to choose and define their own issues and to develop and implement plans of action—not signing them up for specific social movements that will demand sacrifice. Often, an institution’s recruitment takes the form of a general invitation to civic engagement, civic learning, or dialogue, not a call to join a movement.

See also: pay attention to movements, not just activists and events; the value of diversity and discussion within social movements; social movements of the sixties, seventies, and today; a sketch of a theory of social movements

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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.