An Assorted History of Student Movements

As students, we often feel powerless or inexperienced—no longer children, yet stuck somewhere between adolescence and adulthood. It can seem like adults control the pillars of society and success and change, and we are constantly two steps behind. Yet, we have rich history of student movements and revolutions to prove us wrong. Activism has centered around students, especially university students, for centuries, as campuses across the globe have spearheaded movements, deposed leaders, and fought for lasting social and political change. Even when student-led movements have been unsuccessful in achieving their goals, they succeed in mobilizing youth, forcing conversation, and changing culture. Even today, students—and young people more generally— remain an important, underestimated, and powerful force of political mobilization, as seen most recently in the US with protests against gun violence, like the March For Our Lives. At a time when adult society is becoming increasingly apathetic and uninvolved, student movements are a vital, refreshing, and necessary source of justice and protest.

What follows is a list, by no means comprehensive, of the student movements which in my perspective are most inspirational and educational. It is a necessarily limited and biased list, and so take it with a grain of salt. May universities—including and especially the University of Edinburgh— continue to be a hotbed of counterculture and dissent!

1. USA 1960s

The mid-twentieth century was a time of revolution across issues and across the globe—the year 1968 in particular was a time of radical student activism and university revolts. In the United States, students at Columbia University protested the university’s affiliation with a weapons research think tank, as well as the proposed construction of a ‘segregated’ gym which would exclude the residents of nearby Harlem. Students held several confrontational demonstrations, and then proceeded to occupy buildings across campus, including the University President’s office, and hold three members of staff hostage. It’s important to note that the protestors were generally split along racial lines, as the protestors from SAS (Student Afro Society) who were more concerned with the racial implications of the segregated gym, distanced themselves from the predominately white SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) protestors, whose main focus was on Vietnam. NYPD violently cleared out the SDS protestors, arresting 700 and injuring over 100 students. In the end, Columbia disaffiliated with the think tank and stopped the proposed gym. The protests at Columbia University were just a small portion of the radical student action of the 1960s, with other incidents at Kent State, UC Berkeley, and Howard University— a historically black college whose students demanded a curriculum which emphasized African-American culture and history. These university protests often (but not always) centered around SDS. Students for a Democratic Society was the largest student activist organization in US history, and its successes remain as an inspirational example of the power of university students to create and sustain a movement.

2. Paris 1968

The same year in Paris, student demonstrations, combined with workers strikes, brought the entire country’s economy to a halt and forced the president to flee. Months of conflicts between students and authorities at the University of Paris exploded as police invaded the Sorbonne campus and student marches escalated into days of riots and street barricades. When the Sorbonne eventually reopened, students occupied it and declared it a ‘people’s university.’ Workers then joined the university students, occupying factories and striking, not led by unions but rather joining spontaneously and demanding a more radical agenda involving ousting the government and running their own factories. The revolts were ultimately unsuccessful in forcing de Gaulle to resign, and full-scale revolution was avoided, but the May 1968 riots are an important reminder of the power and potential of solidarity.

3. Argentina 1918

Since the establishment of Argentina’s first university in the 17thcentury, education was controlled by the clergy and conservative upper class. Professors and administrators decided on the curriculum, suppressing modern ideas like evolution, which challenged the Church’s authority. In 1918, students of the National University of Cordoba fought back, demanding a modernization and secularization of the curriculum, the abolishment of tuition, increased flexibility in attendance and examination to accommodate low income students who needed to work, and student participation in university councils. Students organized strikes, demonstrations, and occupations, preventing classes from restarting, and were forcibly driven out by the national army. Their demands were eventually enacted into law. The objectives of the Cordoba students were adopted by students across Latin American universities, as uprisings and subsequent university reform took place in Argentina, Mexico, Peru, and many other nations.

*Illustrations by Polly Burnay*

© 2018 The Rattlecap

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