Ideals and Realities in Student Protests

On March 5th in the Wall Street Journal, Peter Robinson penned an op-ed on the California higher education budget crisis entitled “The Golden State’s Me Generation”. Robinson begins not with the finances behind the tuition hikes and protests, but rather with the framing of the reaction. He cites participants in the “Strike and Day of Action to Defend Education” casting their efforts in terms of “Freedom Riders,” “farmworkers,” and the fight for justice in the 60s and 70s. Berkeley urban studies professor Ananya Roy provided a racial angle as well, announcing “We have all become students of color now.”
“Evoking protests against the Vietnam War,” Robinson observes, “one banner carried by students at San Francisco State University read, ‘Shut It Down like ’68.’ ‘Today we strike!’ shouted a Berkeley student, ‘Today we march! Today we show solidarity with the workers!'”
This is the vocabulary of the peace movement and civil rights and labor protections of migrant workers. It demonstrates, among other things, the continuing moral authority of those causes, even though they took place 40 and 50 years ago. But there is a giant problem with invoking the movements: if you want to align yourself with the Selma marchers, Cesar Chavez et al, then you better experience some of the same sufferings and indignities that they did. If not, then the citation of such honored and sometimes martyred precursors starts to look a lot more like vanity than politics.
This is, indeed, Robinson’s conclusion: “Yet what did the protesters demand? Peace? Human rights? No. Money. And for whom? For the downtrodden and oppressed? No. For themselves.”

The right judgment of it all, however, is not that the student protests are a cheap “resource grab,” as Robinson says. It is, rather, that the protesters should drop the whole dramaturgy of civil rights principle and historical forebears. To compare implicitly a tuition hike to Bull Connor’s fire hoses and attack dogs is to make the cause look ridiculous. Much better to come right out and put the anger where it actually lies: cash. Don’t link the endeavor to “all people of color” and the miseries they suffer. Doing so only suggests that the protesters are uncertain of their case. I imagine, too, that citizens in California would sympathize much more if the protesters stated bluntly, “This tuition blast is killing us. I can’t afford it!”
In other words, the target shouldn’t be racism or exploitation or any other ideological sounding from the Left. It should be the gross mismanagement of public funds by the State of California’s leadership in the last decade. That is the point of another piece in the Wall Street Journal, an editorial today that advised students in the state, “Look at what the legislature has done!”
The editorial notes that the UC system lost out on $800 million dollars alone this year after the state diverted $3 billion to cover rising government worker pension costs. The skyrocketing costs the editors attribute to a 1999 bill in which state legislators refigured pension benefits on the assumption that “investment returns would grow at a 8.25% rate in perpetuity.” Among other things, the bill refigured benefits for public-safety employees according to a dangerous formula: you could retire at age 50 and receive 3% of your final year’s pay times number of years on the job. “If a firefighter started working at the age of 20,” the Journal calculates, “he could retire at 50 and earn 90% of his final salary, in perpetuity.” One fire chief in the state enjoys a yearly pension of $284,000. More than 15,000 people in the state have annual pensions greater than $100,000.
If students really want to “make a difference,” they should heed the old formula “follow the money,” set up camp out in Capitol Park in Sacramento, identify state legislators who’ve flushed state finances down the sewer, and publicize their dereliction.


  • Mark Bauerlein

    Mark Bauerlein is a professor emeritus of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things, where he hosts a podcast twice a week. He is the author of five books, including The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults.

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