Student Unrest – A Global Phenomenon Essay

Of late, recurring student unrest has become a major political problem in almost all countries which can boast of an educational system. Over the last few years, almost every other day we have been hearing of students being on the rampage in this country or that. In all corners of the globe, they have not only been agitating for educational reform but also coming out to strengthen political economic and social protest movements. This is not to say that student agitations have always been purposeful. Quite often, students have taken to the warpath for causes which could hardly be described as worthwhile or, in some case, even legitimate. All the same, irrespective of the nature of inspiration behind their agitations, the student-leaders have undoubtedly been successful in capturing popular attention, and this in turn has helped them to get results in quite a few cases, e.g. in Indonesia where they were instrumental in weaning the country from the path of communism which it had taken under Soekarno, in Belgium where an agitation on the question of language brought down the country’s government, in India where the government was made to hold its hand on the same question, in Czechoslovakia where students spear-headed the campaign against the Stalinists, etc. All this has given the movement an international character, and student-power has become a slogan with world-wide echoes.

If we try to trace the history of the phenomenon, we shåll find that it is mainly a post-World War II growth. Before 1939, the student world was seldom in the news. In fact, generally speaking, young persons in that age accepted parental authority as a matter of course, and their main occupation was studied. It was World War II which for the first time disturbed these placid backwaters of society and set into motion currents which have grown into mighty waves to I 2 day.

It was during the war years that under the compulsion of circumstances, students in many countries were called upon to play a more active role in their national lives. It was their fathers who had started the war, but it was they who had to bear the brunt of fighting for seven long years. And after the war came to an end, the defeat of German might and the spontaneous decay of colonialism which followed in Asia and Africa had a very profound impact on young minds. They saw that whether developed against superior forces or against well-entrenched authority, organized opposition could work wonders.

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The generation which thus.grew up among the stresses and strains of war years naturally came to acquire a rather equivocal. attitude towards long-established social mores and codes of conduct a far cry from the conformism which had governed its early years. One thing which particularly underwent erosion was respect for the wisdom of age. The death and destruction which had overtaken the world twice in less than three decades was proof enough that old men had bungled, and that in spite of their pretensions to maturer wisdom, they were very much fallible. This, combined with that erosion of law and order which is natural in times of war, wrought a profound change in the spirit of the age. An attitude of dissent rather than concern for the status quo came to prevail.

Let It is this attitude of questioning the established order which we see reflected in the writings of Rosa Luxembourg, Jules Debray, the French thinker, and Prof. Herbert Marcuse writes who are looked upon as the guiding lights of present-day student radicalism. Marcuse, a teacher at the University of California, holds that society at present is basically totalitarian as

“the productive apparatus determinęs not only socially-needed occupations, skills, and attitudes but also individual needs and aspirations. It thus obliterates the opposition between private and public existence, between individual and social needs. Technology serves to institute new, more effective, and more pleasant forms of social control and cohesion.”

Analyzing the impact of technology on modern society, Marcuse describes technological society as a system of domination which operates in the concept and construction of techniques.” He looks upon the ideas of giving workers a voice in the administration, beautifying the places of work and improving working conditions as “subtle technique” to lull their victims into “euphoria in unhappiness.” Marcuse condemns these and the traditional forms of protests as “repressive tolerance” because they serve to keep the masses ignorant of their “true needs.” According to him, it is the students who, being the only adults not absorbed into the productive spheres, are in a particularly happy position to debate the issues and define what our society’s “true” and “false” needs, and also decide who is to be tolerated. They are the elite consisting of “everyone who has learned to think rationally and autonomously. This would be a small number indeed, and not necessarily that of the elected representatives of the people.” Professor Marcuse visualizes for them a role different from that of the revolutionary cadres in traditional communism. They do not try to be accepted or tolerated. They want confrontation and that is what we have been witnessing lately.

The generation which has been in the news these several years with sit-ins, protest marches and violent revolts in university campuses in America, Europe and Asia thus inherited from its predecessor a compulsive irreverence for the established order. That irreverence has been further heightened by the profound sociopolitical changes which have occurred all over the world during the last twenty years or so. Of course, the quality and extent of these changes have been determined by the environment in which they have taken place. The transformation which the affluent society of the west has undergone during this period bears no resemblance to the changes. Which nave been witnessed in the under-developed countries of Asia and Africa. But though the motivations might have been different, the effect on, youth in both types of situations have been similar.

For quite sometime now the more so since World War II developed societies of the west have been in the throes of restlessness which pines for instant rewards–not only material but also spiritual. In pursuit of the mirage, parents have little time for their children in any case not enough to direct them as they themselves were directed once. The children are well provided for and do not have to work their way through universities as their father’s probably doing. But all this affluence and permissiveness has been acting as a social-spiritual corrosive, undermining both the family and the individual.

As compared to this, young people in under-developed Countries of Asia and Africa has been passing through a prolonged period of twilight. The colonial powers which till recently ruled their countries have mostly withdrawn but in many cases have left behind legacies of internal strife, which not only binders all progress, but also frustrates all dreams of a good time coming. Even in countries where some sort of political stability has been stained after the withdrawal of an erstwhile colonial power, youth is revolting against the corruption in society, against the chasm that separates promise and performance. It feels, it has had too much of ideology, discipline, economics and conventional political forms rammed down its throat and would have more to do with all these things.

Thus the student world, both in the West and East, is in the throes of a massive urge for change. Students have been and may well be charged with being ignorant of what they want. But they surely know what they do not want. There is a movement of political protest against the establishment, an expression of moral revulsion against the corruption of society, a revolt against the remote and impersonal machines not responsive to human needs that modern technocracies have become. What Newfield has said in defining the “New Left in American politics can be aptly used to describe the student Movement of today, “It contains within it and often within individuals on elements of anarchism, socialism, pacifism, existent kallsin, humanism, transcendentalism, bohemianism, populism, mysticism and black nationalism.” And it seeks to attain its object through a mixture of revolutionary techniques and doctrines developed earlier in India and the South American, countries. They reject Gandhi’s non-violence but make use of the techniques evolved by him, for political coercion. They do not believe violence starts a new chain of violence. On the other hand, they believe it tries to break established violence. Therefore, they give equal respect to Gandhi, the great anarchist, and the romantic figure of Che Guevara whom they find uniquely inspirational. Particularly in the Western countries, Guevara is the hero of not only those who actively promote revolution but also of the romantic and dreamy-eyed in whom the urge for change is no more than a vague feeling.

The young idealism of to-day’s student burns to re-order the world, not only through passive protest but with specific action. With. his inheritance of non-conformism and advantage of financial security, he is in a very favorable position to examine closely the social and political values he is expected to accept and he subjects them to a critical review. And what does he see? He sees high sounding principles invariably being ignored for expediency, political leaders deliberately duping or doping the masses, vested interests being allowed to frustrate the welfare state at every step, corruption rampant in high places and numerous other signs of the dichotomy between word and deep which is so characteristic of our – times. All this makes him supremely skeptical about ideologies and trenchantly critical of the establishment. He feels suffocated and demands instant change. Naturally, he wants the University to become the starting and focal point of that change.

In fact, during the last few years, student movements everywhere have had their origin in demands for university reform. For long these centers of learning had been preparing young men to enter the world and to go forth to conserve accepted social norms. But in the vastly changed context of today, they are not proving adequate even for that. They are overcrowded. Since the fifties, university enrolments have doubled. What they go on teaching, is not sufficiently relevant to today’s life. In the case of those who go in for a liberal education, not more than one in four can find a job. The curricula are antiquated. It is said that the system of education in vogue in France has not changed since the time of Napoleon. Things are no better in other countries either.

Naturally, students want a complete overhauling of the system, a revised curriculum, more communication between teachers and students, and student participation in the administration of educational institutions, in the choice of teachers and in the framing of courses. In fact, they do not stop there. Their ambition is to see the university transformed from being a personnel agency for the economy to an active force on the side of social protest and reform. And in the pursuit of that goal, they want no holds barred. “It is forbidden to forbid.” They want to question everything and reevaluate everything because they are no longer prepared to believe old people who could not prevent two gruesome wars in living memory and who have brought the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation.

Obviously, this concern for the future, this sort of commitment to rescue life from the hypocrisy of politics and the vulgarity of commercialism is a healthy sign, and it is heartening if youth has an urge towards such noble enterprise. But very often both the purpose and the method is chosen to achieve that purpose are patently frivolous. For instance, students demonstrating for a reduction in admission rates charged by cinemas, students agitating for free bus rides, students demonstrating against regular classes, or as recently happened in U.S.A., Britain, and France, students demanding uninhibited mixing of the sexes. This has created an impression that the student activists of today are led by never do wells who have either dropped out of college or happen to be failures. But the attention they have attracted and the achievements: they have made could hardly spring out of the rantings of frustrated -mobs. Thèse frivolous aspects represent mostly the fringes of the movement. As a matter of fact, the hardcore of student leadership to-day consists of brilliant young men who are well above average in mental equipment and scholastic attainments. In different countries, they come from different social strata and backgrounds, but there is one thing in common between student agitators in communist countries and the western democracies, i.e. both are protesting against the difference between the myth and reality of their societies. The student in the Soviet, Union demands that the system should translate into practice the ideals it preaches. Similarly, in U.S.A., the land of liberty, Tom Hyden wants the individual to recover the power he has abdicated to top-down organizational units. Similarly, students in both communist and capitalist countries are at war with equal ardor against established values. A Polish student refuses to accept everything Russian as sanctimonious, and good. And Karl Dietrich Wolff in Germany criticizes unbridled freedom of thought saying,

“We are in favor of freedom of thought, and as Rosa Luxembourg said, this also means freedom for the others. But we are also of the opinion that freedom of thought can be misused. In the prevailing situation, we really have to ask whether there is not an emergency situation which makes necessary measures against an unparalleled campaign of hatred. We believe that freedom of the press cannot mean simply the right of the rich, the trusts, to sell their ideas.”

Whatever Herr Wolff may have to say against the functioning of the press today, perhaps the greatest single factor which has helped “student power” to gain the influence it commands and to attract the attention it does the progress made by the media of communication in the present age. The daily press, radio, and television faithfully and promptly carry the message of the most rabid anarchist to every home in several countries and overnight, he becomes a force to be reckoned with.

When all has been said, we must concede that whatever the factors contributing to their success may have been student activities, have succeeded wherever they had truth on their side. It is true that they are more critical than constructive. Very often they have shown themselves to be intolerant of disagreement, and even. ready to stop to methods of the street. All the same, they are basically motivated by a desire for a change for the better. They are suffering from a sickness of the soul which will not be relieved until they have evolved a philosophy adequate for the stirring times in which they are living. This they will be able to find only through reason and coolness and not through immature and hot-headed intolerance. The older generation can also play its part by anticipating rather than grudgingly yielding to the winds of change.

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