Tag Archives: activism

No Longer Academic: When Activism Is on the Curriculum

howard_zinn.jpgHoward Zinn, the late self-described “socialist anarchist” history professor and mentor to the New Left, would have been proud of the way the Wisconsin protests rolled along.  The weeks-long sit-in of the Wisconsin state capitol building–heavily populated by teachers and students–exemplified the kind of “participatory democracy” his associate Tom Hayden promoted in the Port Huron Statement, the manifesto of the SDS.  For Zinn, education was a key component of  “guerilla warfare with the system,” as he wrote in SNCC: The New Abolitionists in 1964.  In 2009, he told students at the University of Wisconsin, “the best kind of education you can get is when you’re involved in social struggles for a cause.”  Zinn himself acted as provocateur to his students at Spelman and Boston University, encouraging them to act as subversives to the U.S. government and to their school’s administration.
Much of the public may want to leave the New Left to ancient history and simply cast their work in the humanities as the activities of eccentrics with little impact on day-to-day life.  Politicians and citizen groups leave curriculum development to the credentialed.  But behind ivy-covered walls changes instituted in the intervening decades were played out in Madison.  The standards of scholarship have been overturned, with overt political agendas replacing scholarly academic subjects, and “direct action” replacing scholarly modes of inquiry.  As a result, students today feel they are on a moral mission; they follow the lead of activist professors who flatter them with the idea that they are “critical thinkers,” while they guide them into mandatory “civic engagement” activities.  The new pedagogy of foundationless (anarchic) “critical thinking” and (democratic) “collaborative learning” make disrupting the legislative process seem like part of the school day.   
A guest post titled “From the Occupied Capitol,” by University of Illinois-Champagne graduate student Michael Verderame, in the Chronicle of Higher Education provided an apt example of the New Left’s influence.  Verderame joined a hundred other Illinois Graduate Employees Unions members in Wisconsin.  His post from inside the capitol resonated with the self-righteousness and self-congratulation of memoirs of 1960s veterans, especially Bill Ayers in Fugitive Days. “We went there in support not just of public workers in Wisconsin, but of the very idea of collective bargaining,” Verderame wrote.  He and fellow protestors wanted to “build on [the] energy” already in the occupied capitol, to support “union brothers’ and sisters’ rights.”  They formed a human chain around the capitol building.  He had scrawled a contact number on his arm in case of arrest, “a surreal experience for someone who’s never had a speeding ticket.”  At the end of the protest day, some protestors choose to leave, but several stay inside, “understanding that they were risking their own liberty to do so.”  Starvation was averted: “we were heartened to see food and supplies go in, as well as additional press.”  Word came at 7:00 p.m. that no one would be arrested–another close call.  Such melodrama reflected protest signs in Wisconsin as well as those I’ve seen in Atlanta, likening Governor Scott Walker to Mubarak and Hitler. 

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NYU’s ”Union” Activism Re-Emerges

The New York Times recently brought news that that the union and faculty activists determined to establish a graduate student union at NYU have renewed their crusade. I use the phrase “union and faculty activists” deliberately, since it’s hard to imagine that any of the graduate students actually involved in the original controversy remain at NYU, unless they have experienced writers’ block in the production of their dissertations.
The matter appeared to be settled in 2004, when the NLRB understandably ruled that graduate students are primarily just that—students, not workers. The reaction on the NYU campus and among faculty and professional allies was fierce. Graduate student activists then serving as teaching assistants decided to penalize their own undergraduate students for the NLRB decision, going on strike and refusing to submit grades. In perhaps the most bizarre expression of support for the strikers’ cause, the AAUP declared that NYU’s refusal to recognize the union constituted a violation of both academic freedom and the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights(!).
When NYU president John Sexton reasonably decided to hire for the spring 2006 semester only those graduate students who would commit to actually teaching their classes—rather than going on strike on NYU’s dime—a group of around 200 NYU professors calling themselves “Faculty Democracy” protested the “undemocratic” requirement. The signatories even threatened to withhold grades in their courses. In the end, except for a handful of malcontents, the situation returned to normal, and the strike fizzled.

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The Problem With Student Engagement

“Student engagement” is a movement and a cause that has made steady progress on our campuses. According to Inside Higher Education, it has reached a “critical mass” of participants, though many in the world of colleges and universities are only half-aware, or perhaps unaware, of what the movement is all about. The National Survey of Student Engagement, an organization driving the cause, is at least partly a product of both a nation-wide administrative push and the nation’s education schools. Student engagement activities, ranging from community service to deeper involvement in more academically-oriented concerns, are gaining more official status with the passage of each year. Last year, for example, leaders of the University of Wisconsin system declared their intention to require students to maintain a “second transcript” that tracks students’ extra-curricular activities. Students would not be required to do anything, but such supplementary transcripts would become part of their record alongside the traditional academic transcript. Such pressure no doubt would compel many more students to enhance (or pad) their resumes, for better or for worse. (I raised many questions about this program here last year.) As far as I know, the program has yet to be instituted.
Robert Morris University, a private school of 4700 students in Pittsburgh, pioneered the next stage of development last month by establishing the nation’s first known deanship to oversee the school’s new Student Engagement Transcript program. According to another recent story in Inside Higher Education, the program “tracks and certifies a student’s participation in faculty-sponsored extracurricular and co-curricular activities. Activities must fall in one of seven areas: arts, culture and creativity; “transcultural/global” experiences, which include studying abroad; research; community service; leadership; professional experience; and independent study projects.” In addition to completing the requirements for traditional majors, Robert Morris University will now require freshmen students to “demonstrate participation in at least two of the seven categories in order to graduate.”

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