To a Young Activist, from a Relic of the New Left:
A Homily about Student Activism, Learning,
and Educational Democracy

by Michael Rossman

homily, n.:     (1) A sermon ... intended to edify a congregation on some practical matter.
(2) A tedious moralizing lecture or admonition.                                           

 Dear R.,

          I know you've been wondering whether you should get more involved in some sort of social activism this year, against apartheid, the rape of Nicaragua, nuclear arms, or whatever -- and wondering how to convince your parents and yourself that involvement isn't just a costly distraction from your real job of being a student.

          So I hope you'll pardon me for offering some middle-aged perspectives on the matter. I wish I could advertise my homily as the gathered, ripened wisdom of the Movement of the Sixties. But in truth, these ideas were at most a minority view, so at odds with customary political rhetoric that we hardly knew how to explore them in public, let alone how to realize them fully in practice. Yet they still seem essential to me, and for you.

[Some Core Issues]

          Take anti-apartheid action, for example. You don't join the campus divestment movement just for altruistic reasons, for the sake of those poor oppressed Black folks half the world away. You join it for selfish reasons -- for the sake of your own life, your own learning, your own soul.

          For the issue is yours as much as it is theirs. It has many layers, like an onion; it grows broader and deeper as you peel them away towards the personal core. First comes the husk, the issue of what happens within South Africa itself. Next comes the issue of U.S. support for a tottering racist tyranny; and next, of the university's complicity in this, through its investment policy.

          I'm sure you'll hear these outer layers dissected thoroughly at the noon rallies, but I hope the discussion goes deeper. For beneath the particular question of divestment, the underlying issue is about educational governance: How are the university's decisions made, by whom and for whom? And underlying this, for you, the issue grows personal. What does it mean, to be a citizen, not only of a democratic country and state, but of a community of learning? And who are you learning to be, by what you're learning to do?

          It's here you begin, not in South Africa, but with what's wrong at home, and with your own needs. You get involved because you are a citizen, and you want to learn how to be a good one. You act because your own country, your own state, your own school, are supporting something slightly less ugly than genocide, because the government of each is doing it with your money and in your name, and won't stop until you help bring enough pressure to bear. As a political citizen, you work for divestment because many levers are needed, and this one is handy and big, and maybe there's a chance of moving it. But as a citizen of a community of learning, you work for it for deeper reasons.

[About Educational Citizenship]

          You don't do it to stop a great public university from betraying its humane mission, by investing in misery's institutionalization. You do it because the university's sense of mission itself dissolved before you were born, leaving you to pursue your learning in a vast educational machinery geared to shape you to fit the forces that shape it, governed by the amoral fog of managers and technocrats; and because you long for some gesture of moral meaning, even so dry as divestment, to resonate through the whole of it -- the machinery, the community -- to make it feel like a proper home ground for your own quest to make something meaningful of life.

          To the institution, you're merely a student, an almost- powerless cog in the machinery, if not just raw material at its mercies. You hardly know what else to call yourself, for the language of citizenship in a community of learning is as underdeveloped as the practice of educational democracy. Yet still you should know that this university is yours, in some deep and inalienable sense, won by your choice to shape yourself through its toils and thereby to help make it what it is. It's yours, and in this co-ownership and co-citizenship, you have more rights and responsibilities than the institution's management recognizes, more than you grasp yet, more than you have power or wisdom to carry out. But you try anyway, because it's vital to your citizenship, and vital to your own learning.

          So you work for divestment because the university should be more responsive to the needs of the people its operations affect -- both in South Africa, and on campus. You work not only to change investment policy but to change the university itself -- to extend and create mechanisms of response, expectations of response, a culture of responsiveness throughout the institution and its community. For this case is particular but the principle is general: You have the right to share in the decisions that affect your life.

          How the financial future of your teachers is secured may seem, to administrators, hardly to affect a student. Yet the decision has become a major factor in the moral climate of your learning-place, an issue calling you to recognize and exercise your right to participate -- not only in this, but in whatever else affects you as a learner.

          For the right is simple and indivisible, and applies to all your experience. You have the right to have a say, not only about which courses you choose to build your program, but about which courses are offered in the first place for you to choose among. You have the right to have a say, not only about which teachers you seek or shun, but about which teachers are hired, retained, dismissed. You have the right to have a say, not only about how you yourself cope with the process of each class, but about the way the class itself runs; not only about how you prepare for the test, but about how and why you will be tested; not only about which grade to work how hard for, but about how and why and whether you will be graded and judged. All this, and so much more.

          "To have a say" means to participate meaningfully, substantively, equitably, in such decisions. Of course, you hardly have any such right, if you go by the university's rulebooks or common customs. Still it remains inalienable in its potential. How much of a say you should have, or want to have, and how -- well, these are matters for working out in each issue, with the other people concerned. You have hardly begun to learn how, we have hardly begun. And above all, as a democratic citizen, you have the right to a responsive institution to help you learn -- a school, a society, that doesn't simply "serve" you, in a passive sense, but actively encourages and enables you to learn, with others, how to use and change it to meet your needs.

[Your Job As A Student]

          So you work for divestment -- or to retain a particular professor, or to sever university support of military research, or to establish a field-study course for credit -- not only for the overt goal, but to make the university a more responsive learning-place. You do so less for the general good than from selfish need, as a personal duty. For this is the environment you need, essential to your learning; this is the condition you came here to learn how to help create, in which you can have your rightful say in meeting needs.

          This is your proper job as a student, your own vital curriculum, though the catalogue doesn't list it and the school works largely to discredit it. For the ivory tower, the academic cloister distinct from society, dissolved long ago. The modern multiversity has itself become one of the massive bureaucratized systems of the society it prepares you for, reflecting the dominant forces directly, inculcating the dominating culture. Sociologists still talk of studenthood as a moratorium time, a delay of social adulthood; but in a deep sense, that's nonsense. This is it, kid; you're in the thick of it already. Your school is a fair replica of institutional society; and your schooling is already the experience it prepares you for.

          For throughout its operations, your school has a shadow program, a meta-curriculum active in each particular course, each transaction with the Registrar. Its normal processes teach you to divide yourself from others through specialization and sub-specialization; to accept hierarchical systems of status and decision-making; to expect and depend on authoritative direction of what you should do and how to do it; to work and learn in mechanized periods having no natural relation to your own needs and energies, in groups formed and dissolved by institutional processes rather than their own dynamics; and so on. Through all this it teaches also a deeper lesson, of passive and unconscious adaptation to the institutional order itself as the state of nature.

          The relations and experiences you school yourself in now, prepare you for what lies ahead. Waiting till after you graduate to assume some non-passive relation to the institutions that serve and govern you, is like waiting till you get rich and powerful enough to "really be able to do something about social injustice." I don't mean that you can't; but it's a lot harder to get around to doing it, unless you've been practicing.              

         So you work for divestment, or whatever, and bless the university even as you curse its administration's resistance, for giving you the chance to practice. For your school's doing its proper job after all, in an ironic but precious sense, by providing you a rich ground on which to learn the vital lessons that no courses cover, that prepare you indeed for life in modern society.

          Here you can learn how to find and share resources in the institutional wilderness. Here you can learn how to deal with bureaucratic systems for your needs and rights, and to preserve your sense of self in the dealing. Here you can learn how to make your personal imprint on the impersonal; how to deal off with authorities to get your own patch of turf on which to exercise self-direction; how to work alone and with others to affect the processes and decisions that affect you; and how to change the whole for better, or at least to try.

          This is some of the learning your school offers, once you step beyond the stance of passive passage through its system. Or rather, this is your counter-schooling, the thrust of a different response to the same circumstance, providing you with technical skills and more, restoring what is withered by the institutional process: directness and connection, integrity and autonomy.

 [Your Job Making You]

          So you work for divestment, or for whatever else matters, because the work joins you with others isolated in the machinery's compartments, cuts across the divisions of discipline, class, color, status, connects you in a community engaged together in coming to grips with what matters to all. You do it to help call this community itself into being; you do it to help call yourself into being, to learn who you can be and what you can do in this connection.

          You get involved not only to help make this institution respond, but to make yourself a person who responds, a person who can help make social machinery responsive. For you yourself are the most precious product of your action, as important as the community it engenders and the end it achieves. Your own learning, your own growth, are your action's gift to the future -- to your future, and to ours, for you need to know your potency as a citizen, and we need you to know too.

          To say that you get involved to prepare yourself as an agent of democracy, makes campus activism sound like a boot-camp for professional do-gooders -- and worse, makes the impulse and training seem so dreadfully exterior. There's just no adequate language to speak of your citizenship as if it were an intimate personal quality, as complex and tangible as your musculature, your emotions, your mind. Yet it is indeed another sort of body that you wear in the world from within, that develops through your exercise, that you exercise for the same reasons you exercise your muscles, your feelings, your mind -- from sheer existential pleasure, just because you can; and to make yourself whole, healthy, capable, to make yourself who you can be for the long run. And also, of course, because you must: for your citizenship obeys the same stern law as your strength, your compassion, your analytic power: Use it or lose it.

          All this is reason enough to work for divestment or whatever. But beyond this, as a student, as a learner, you have special reason to "become a social activist." You do it to learn in practice a different set of lessons about learning itself, than your school teaches you; and to become a different sort of learner. For this study is your own choice, unassigned. It offers you the chance to choose not only the subject but how to approach it, what resources to use, what information to seek; to choose who you learn with and who you learn from; and to follow the learning wherever it may lead. It invites you to learn how to form your own view among conflicting evidences; and requires that you be your own judge of the learning and consequence, though not alone and with history's aid.

          In such ways and more, your activism can be a specific antidote, or at least a healing balance, to the lessons of institutional studenthood. For these are the habits and capacities of a self-directed learner, that prepare you as a free and potent citizen of a community of learning, and of a democratic society -- and prepare you, quite mundanely, for most of the learning you'll be faced with for the rest of your life, at least outside your job.

          Of course it's easy enough to fail this curriculum even while working for the good, by recreating in your activism the same habits of authority-centered learning that the institution teaches, depending on authoritative figures to define what's important and how to approach it, to assign your roles and judge your performance, and so on. There's no charm against this, but only your clarity and will to persist in becoming your own person, with the help of your friends.

          So you work for divestment or whatever, and try to make the work itself reflect your goals. You try to make the group, the action, the movement embody equity and mutual care; you work to have your rightful say within it as well as through it, and to make it responsive to all. So simple to pose, this curriculum of democracy; you could spend a lifetime learning how, might as well keep on getting started now.

[Good Luck]

          All this may seem a bit much to hang on the slender, hesitant thread of your early participation. Following the news, listening at the noon rallies, a few talks with friends, a book looked into, joining a march across campus -- it doesn't amount to much yet, hardly enough to trouble your studies. Yet these are the issues, the stakes, that even your most tentative participation involves; these are the social and personal potentials that resonate in your simplest action, inviting you to explore and realize them further.

          Or so it seems to me now, a quarter-century down the line. Of course there are other ways to understand involvement, and I hope you'll learn from many, to balance whatever weight you give to Uncle Mike's quaint views. But as you commit yourself further, you may find some such set of ideas helpful, or even necessary, to make sense of what you are doing as a whole person, rather than as a schizophrenic torn between the world and the academy, activism and studenthood, selfless good and selfish need, and such other disabling contradictions.

          Little of what I've said here is specific to divestment activism. The same issues and stakes are involved each time you move with a few others to meet some modest need in your department or dorm, each time you step beyond routine alone or with others. In many ways, you can learn more from local small-scale involvement. But a mass movement does offer fruitful learning, if you follow the basic rules: Find or make a small group to work in; attempt something feasible; take care to evaluate what happens. The anti-apartheid movement is hot this year, and will surely tempt you -- though if you want to invest yourself in an international cause, I'd suggest Nicaragua instead, where the tragedy is entirely a U.S. production and is happening faster, with the historical stakes much greater and so few of us opposed.

          Whichever you choose, I hope you'll come also to bring the impulse, the vision, the lessons of the democratic curriculum, home to the many aspects of your life as a student within this institution, for its sake and your own.

October 1985

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