Student activism - idealistic or effective?

Image credit: Linda Goldstein

Coming to university after A-levels brought a surprise on the political front. Students here are involved and learned in current affairs on a level beyond that of those at my sixth form, in both subtle and more explicit ways. Political discourse, ranging from the all-time favourite American presidency to social issues like feminism, features in casual conversation with friends, while on a larger scale, students actively participate in organisations like the CUSU Women’s Campaign, or take to the streets to protest matters like Trump’s recent Muslim ban. This is far from being only Cambridge behaviour, however; although 2016, with its American presidential elections, might have felt like a watershed, student activism has long been a part of many universities. The American Youth Congress of the 1930s protested against war and racial discrimination in Washington; the London School of Economics Students’ Union gained international attention in the 160s for the student riots of 1966-67 and 1968-69; India saw its biggest nationwide student protests of 25 years in 2016 in a bid for greater freedom of expression.

But how effective is student activism really? Are most student protests more idealistic than catalytic? Those in the past have seen varying levels of success; in line with the Black Lives Matter movement, a group of black University of Missouri students successfully petitioned for the college’s president Tim Wolfe to step down in 2015, along with a 10 per cent quota for black faculty and staff in the new academic year, while South African students managed to defeat a proposed 11.5 per cent tuition rise in the same year, helping to increase accessibility to higher education. On the other hand, the infamous Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 saw student protestors being violently suppressed after the government imposed martial law, while the 2010 United Kingdom student protests failed to stop government reforms on tuition fees. Some activist movements eventually dissipate; others go on to have deep impacts.

Idealism, however, forms the centre of all activism. Students campaign for what they believe is right, for something that has yet to be achieved. Regardless of scale, each protest and movement is the manifestation of a voice, and perhaps it is this that ultimately makes each valid in some way. Effectiveness is dependent on a wide range of factors: organisation, resources, funding, and size, just to name a few. Realistically, not all student protests will be successful, or bring about lasting consequences, but perhaps it is the very fact of their existence that counts toward progress. While we may still be a relatively young sector of society, it is this brand of young idealism that will allow certain movements to gain ground and attention. It is thus not a matter of deciding whether a student protest, or other manifestation of activism, falls under idealism or effectiveness, for this would be assuming too great a dichotomy between them, or that its very nature as idealistic does not already translate to some effectiveness. As long as society becomes aware of a voice, of a call for change, then value already lies inherent in student activism.

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