The Facebook groups have been created, the editorials have been written, student leaders have spoken and, activism has returned to the College of William and Mary. The cause? Access to our new business school for late-night studying. What has activism come to? How did we become so petty and mundane?
Well, actually college students have always been this way. After the radicalism of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights-era showed students the benefit of cutting classes to stand up for their beliefs, it wasn’t long before we applied this principle to issues closer to home. In 1977, Harvard University Dean John B. Fox had the audacity to dictate that two dining halls would not serve hot breakfasts. Students quickly rallied behind a group ominously christened the Eggshell Alliance.
The Harvard Crimson reported: “On a warm morning in the spring of 1977, the Eggshell Alliance mustered just after 8 a.m. at the Mather and Dunster House dining halls. Chanting, ‘we want it hot,’ about 50 demonstrators blew whistles and clashed cymbals as they marched toward University Hall and the old Union dining hall in protest of the decision.”
Of course, Harvard students weren’t so insular as to think that food was the only important issue of the day. They also protested rising tuition and the ringing of Memorial Church’s morning bells, as they were apt to disturb students’ much-needed sleep.
This isn’t to say that concerns outside the walls of universities were not given their fair share of thought. The ’80s saw an upsurge in activism directed at South African apartheid. Students held candlelight vigils and demanded their schools give up South African holdings and, as we all know, this soon terrified South Africa into compliance.
But this victory left students without any similarly high-profile cause. There were no overarching issues to unite students everywhere, so students of today are very different in their protesting tastes. Social and political issues still hold some allure. Pro-life, anti-war and gay rights demonstrations are not uncommon on campuses; however, they seem to lack the vigor and novelty of years past. What really gets students riled up are the college-specific issues that affect students daily.
At Gallaudet University, a school for the deaf in Washington, D.C., anarchy broke out after a new school president was appointed. For issues I will not even pretend to understand, the new president was not well-received by the student body, which responded by shutting down the school.
The Washington Post vividly paints the scene: “As messages spread from pager to pager overnight, the crowd grew from dozens to hundreds of students early yesterday. Scores of burly football players stood in lines with their shoulders thrown back defiantly, glowering and blocking the main entrance. With a drum pounding in the background, students surged around the few cars that tried to get in to the campus, which includes elementary and secondary schools for deaf students, arguing in sign language with angry drivers.”
Of course, this is the exception rather than the rule — most student activism is more low-key and about even less important issues. For example, 50 students attending University of Colorado at Colorado Springs protested the fact that a college health fair did not tell students that marijuana was better for you than alcohol. Or, my personal favorite, students at many colleges across the county are now wearing empty gun-holsters to class to protest colleges restricting concealed weapons on campuses.
So don’t worry College students, you are carrying on the proud traditions of railing against issues that are of limited importance. At the end of the day maybe, it’s not so pointless. After all, small changes can make college life more comfortable, and activism is a proven way to get things done. But don’t get me wrong — concerning the Alan B. Miller Hall situation, I couldn’t care less.
E-mail Ed Innace at [email protected] Cartoon by Olivia Walch.