As we approach June, and college students find summer jobs and move back into their childhood bedrooms, there is a burning question in the minds of many on the American left. Why wasn't there an American Spring? Where was the youth revolt we were all expecting? It seems that, save the state of California, the most significant rebellion on an American college campus this year occurred in State College, Pa., when Penn State fans took to the streets after it was announced that legendary football coach Joe Paterno was fired for his "failure of leadership" in the child sex abuse scandal involving assistant Jerry Sandusky.
In the fall, the Occupy movement called into question the upward redistribution of wealth and power and the subordination of the American political system to the interests of the 1%. Occupy grew rapidly on college campuses, and it seemed only logical that American college students would soon begin to take a more critical look at rising tuition costs and student loan debt.
And yet, as the weather has grown warmer, instead of taking over buildings and calling for strikes, students are putting on their bathing suits and heading to the campus green to toss a frisbee or a football. What gives? Most reasonable people agree: higher education is in crisis. Tuition growth shows no signs of slowing down, and the reckless student loan industry's lending incentives are even more perverse than the housing market circa 2007. As costs rise, quality has stagnated, and undergraduates have been herded into giant lecture halls to be taught by graduate students and adjunct faculty. The operation of the machine has become pretty odious, but why aren't students putting their bodies on the upon the gears?
1: Poor Organization
Over the past several decades, university administrations have been able to co-opt most student governments, limiting their power and offering perks to leadership to keep them happy and passive. As a result, for the most part, student activism is contained within small, single-issue student groups. Almost all progressive issues are represented by different groups on campus, but their ability to work together varies from place to place. Too often, whether due to squabbles over politics, egos, or issue-focus, student groups find it difficult to collaborate effectively. But, on their own, individual groups are rarely able to change the public narrative on a given issue, especially when they're up against multimillion dollar media relations departments. If students are unable to form effective coalitions or student unions to consolidate their power, they will remain divided and defeated (and so will the left).
2: The Nature of the Problem
In contrast to many other countries, in the United States, free or low cost higher education is not seen as a public good or entitlement, but instead as a strategic personal investment to increase future labor power. Massive amounts of student debt are just par for the course, since we all need a college diploma to remain competitive in the job market. And of course, debt doesn't become real until students graduate and begin paying interest every month. As the debt-load increases, the response from students is to either keep their heads down and work harder, or to party hard and enjoy their time in college, since post-graduate life promises to be miserable. Since student debt is sold to us as a personal decision and a personal investment, true solidarity is hard to come by. While the Quebec students view themselves as the frontlines of defense against neo-liberal reforms, some American students can't even remember a single year when tuition didn't go up. We have a habit of individualizing collective problems in our society, and student debt is a perfect example; it fails to inspire the type of uncompromising rebellion that the draft did.
3: Hegemony in Student Life
Most college students are completely content with drinking culture and living for the weekend. If the purpose of high school is college, and the purpose of college is a diploma, and the purpose of a diploma is a job, then as long as you get a diploma and decent grades, the rest of your time in college can be sex, drugs, and dubstep before you enter the 'real world.' For many students, the culture of the university is party culture, sports culture, and consumer culture. Drinking culture has always been a part of the university experience, but has it always been its focus?
The beauty of neo-liberal capitalism is that the logic of individual consumer choice has even penetrated social activism, dictating how we dissent. Students are given a menu of causes to choose from, and if they don't like one, they can choose another. Catering to a generation without a sense of historical struggle, collective action, or social obligation often forces activists to "sell" activism to the student body as just another commodity promising temporary satisfaction. In a social environment with perpetual distractions and competing narratives, it's hard for students to latch on to activism if it isn't going to get them laid, or if it doesn't come with free food.
We may be tempted to scoff at the Penn State students who flipped vans and tore down light posts when their coach was fired for his complicity with child rape, but in truth, this type of behavior is an accurate representation of dominant campus culture reinforced constantly by students and university administrations alike. Without providing alternatives to self-destructive campus culture, creating new ways of organizing ourselves, and developing real solidarity between students and between students and faculty, we won't have an American spring anytime soon.