The Johns Hopkins University listening to student demands.



Tracing The History of Student Activism & Why It's So Important Today

Student activism has existed almost as long as the university system itself. In the early years of higher education, way back in the 1200s, students would clash with townspeople over a multitude of things; from property damage to the treatment of servants, students at universities were always clashing over hot button issues. Despite a checkered European past, student activism really arrived in the United States around the 1600s.

The first recorded American student activism was reportedly in 1638. Harvard students protested because of the President’s use of brute force and his wife’s bad cooking. About 100 years later, they protested bad butter. (Those Harvard  kids love good cooking.) By the 1800s, most of these early universities were dealing with organized student protests. Unlike modern protests, in general these were students fighting against the confinement of university life and the expectations put upon them.

By the time of the Great Depression students were beginning to organize around social causes. As universities had large groups of well-educated young people without nine-to-five jobs, organization seemed inevitable. They fought against compulsory chapel attendance, military training, and anti-war demonstrations; the Communist party saw many college students join their ranks. The students of the ’30s and ’40s fought against the pre-established norms, they questioned what society saw as obvious; this became the theme for university student activism.

1930s activism

Posters for student rallies in the ’30s.

After the relative quiet of the ’50s–hey, it was McCarthyism!–the ’60s and ’70s are often seen as the heyday of student activism. Although student activism had always happened, now there was more of a political factor. With feminist groups and groups like the Black Panthers actively reaching out to young people, a space was carved for “the college student” in political discourse.

Nowadays, it seems that people have forgotten this history. “People will often say ‘When has protesting ever done accomplished anything? Why don’t you just vote?’” explained Corey Payne, co-President of the John Hopkins branch of Students for a Democratic Society. “And, I don’t think they understand what we’re doing.” Many on campus organizations, like Payne’s Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), are, themselves. rooted in history. In the ’60s the SDS was the largest radical student organization in the American history.

Student protesters are aware of their history–and we, as a society, should be aware of what they’ve done–so why do so many people talk about today’s protesters using rhetoric about their coddled upbringing and inability to face the real world? Systematically, institutions of higher learning are embedded with the same injustices that our culture has. Historically, they’ve been racist, classist, sexist, and ableist. In essence, they conform to the same rules as the real world: you profit from hard work, but not quite as much if you’re a member of any minority group.

Systematically, institutions of higher learning are embedded with the same injustices that our culture has. Historically, they’ve been racist, classist, sexist, and ableist.

1960s activism

An anti-war rally in 1971.

There is no true divide between academia and “the real world,” they are one and the same; they operate with the same rules and the same biases. Despite facts on bias in college acceptance and the difficulty being a person of color in higher education, the rhetoric remains: College students are pampered, they’re whining about petty things.

Payne disagrees with the idea that college students are fighting against insignificant problems. “Sure, some of the fights we pick are hard to convince people of their merits,” Payne explained. “But I think, generally, media coverage and this idea of ‘you’re just whining’ is a method used to invalidate the real demands for change we present. At Johns Hopkins, we’re fighting against honest-to-god racism and white supremacy embedded in our institution and perpetuated by our community members.”

What they’re really saying behind words like “pampered” and “coddled” is much more insidious. “Conservative columnists are aghast that students from groups long discriminated against aren’t just grateful to their institutions for allowing them on campus,” writes Valerie Strauss. “And liberal columnists, for their part, can’t understand why the particular struggles of their heroic youth aren’t simply taken up by their militant descendants. Ought these writers really be shocked when their own hierarchy of values based in secularism and fair procedures…aren’t simply embraced by students from groups who have seen how ‘fair procedures’ can obscure discrimination, intimidation and worse?”

jhu protest

John Hopkin University protesters at a Black Lives Matter rally.

“The passion of youth, and the willingness to see it through over the long term, is the only thing that will succeed.” –Corey Payne

An average college student today has seen a “war on terror” lasting almost 15 years, a palpable rise in Islamophobia, mass shootings at elementary schools, 12-year-old black boys be killed by police, and a government tape our phone calls. Quite literally, the youth are disillusioned with society as it is. Can you blame them?

College students have realized the importance of their role. Earlier this year, the football players at University of Missouri displayed the power that they held as student athletes–students athletes making the university over a million dollars a game. After inaction from the administration in response to racial injustice, a group of students began demanding the designation of the university’s President, Tim Wolfe. Their demands fell on mostly deaf ears until football players joined the cause, refusing to play until the demands were met.

It worked.

While student athletes hold a specific power–generally, a monetary one for large universities–every college student is important to political discourse. “We’re the future!” Payne exclaims, though he acknowledges the cliche he firmly believes in it’s truth. “The passion of youth, and the willingness to see it through over the long term, is the only thing that will succeed. Our voices are largely excluded from political discourse despite our incredible numbers and power. Millennial voters outnumber baby boomers, but less than one in three vote. We exist in a system that encourages apathy–it’s important for young people, those with time, passion, and organizing ability, to fight this while we can.”

mizzou protest

Student at University of Missouri camped out on the quad to protest the administrations inaction in response to racial injustice.

This is what is so ironic about the backlash against student activism: Who sincerely expected it not to happen? There’s a historical precedent: A population of disillusioned young people, an academic and discursive mindset, time, and political climate that’s indisputably electric. Student activism, the type of student activism we’re seeing, was inevitable. Although you may not personally believe in what student are fighting for, why shame those who push for progress?

“Student activism in itself is crucial,” Payne continued. “Most people brush it off as students being far more progressive than the general population, which is likely true, but there is an historical legacy to student activism that is often overlooked. Every significant social change in modern history–not just US history but world history–has a significant student element.”

Maybe not all student activism is as imperative as the type Payne is describing–protesting over sushi seems a little passe in my opinion–but that doesn’t mean it’s pointless. Student activism has a place in our society, it’s always had a place in our society, denying modern students a chance at this place in political discourse isn’t just wrong, it’s dangerous. Without the tools activists learn in college, learn by protesting in college, how can we hope to advance as a society?


Photos via JHU Black Student Union, NBC, Solidarity, and 

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