The next time you read about a college president or dean clamping down on some student activity, remember this. The first universities were founded by students themselves, who understood that banding together could protect their interests and amplify their power. In fact, the early medieval universities were little more than student guilds or collectives, and they used their bargaining power to force cities like Paris and Bologna to grant them tax exemptions, along with a raft of legal rights and privileges. When townsfolk tried to gouge them on rent and board, as the Bolognese did in 1217, the students simply removed their university from the town, and returned only when city officials agreed to their demands. The students’ power to withdraw their trade and labor was more or less neutralized when Pope Pius IV bestowed a sizable building on the university. This early parable about the impact of an external subsidy looks forward to our day, when corporate funding of research and programs compromises academic freedom at every turn. It is one of the many lessons to be found in Mark Boren’s absorbing history of student activism, which ranges from Chinese student protests during the Han dynasty (in the first century B.C.E.) to the recent organization of the NYU graduate student union.
When medieval students got into scrapes with townsfolk and local authorities (often escalating to violent town-and-gown riots), the king, or the relevant nobility, almost always intervened on the side of the student elites. This tradition of class solidarity persisted through the Renaissance and the Reformation, though it was complicated by the demand placed on these sons of landed gentry to declare for or against the papacy. In Boren’s account, things changed in the early 19th century when German students formed their own organizations, Burenschaften, at Jena and elsewhere, as instruments for changing society at large, rather than simply furthering their own self-interest. Nationalistic and progressive, the Burenschaften were openly at odds with the state, and would eventually play a leading role in the revolutionary events of 1848. Consequently, students became the object of state surveillance and repression, which sparked a hostile relationship rendered explicit in nationalist movements elsewhere and during the long decades of anti-czarist struggle in Russia. In the 20th century, this legacy is most evident in students’ role in anti-colonial struggles in Indonesia, India, Burma, and many African states, and in the U.S. civil rights movement.
Boren’s chief argument, which is only sporadically pursued, is that student resistance can best be seen as a response to aggression and repression visited upon students, whether by the state or institutional authorities. This thesis is illustrated on occasion, but Boren falls back more often on a no-frills, worldwide summary of political events in which students were centrally involved. We move at a fast clip: from the May Fourth movement in China to the Nazi student movement; Algeria after the war; the 1956 Hungarian uprising; the Japanese Zengakuren in 1959; Freedom Summer and the free-speech movement in 1964; the Prague Spring, part of the annus mirabilis of 1968; carrying on to Tehran in 1978, the intifada in 1987, and Tiananmen Square in 1989. His compulsion to record student involvement wherever it occurred means that he often includes struggles that had little to do with the suppression of students themselves.
Boren is on more fertile ground when he tries to isolate criteria of success for student revolts. In a typical pattern of failure, students provoke the authorities, brutal police suppression follows, public sympathy mounts, and the authorities collapse in the ensuing crisis. A coup d’état occurs, in which student leaders, “ill prepared for the demands of rule,” and ineffectual in maintaining a long-term alliance with labor, “deliver a country into the hands of another powerful figure or group—one prepared to rule by force.” Time and time again, student radicalism withers away with the fall of its adversary, at the very moment when the romance of revolt gives way to the practical task of building anew. Happily, there are exceptions to the rule, and Boren is at his best in selecting and analyzing them.
One example, which posed no immediate threat to the state, was the Argentinean student movement of 1918-1920. Students seized national attention, forged an effective strike-based coalition with workers, and achieved comprehensive reforms of the university system. The movement, which also resulted in the formation of a national political party, was so successful that its strategies were copied religiously all across Latin America. A second example, the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, did lead to a takeover of state power. National strikes and massive demonstrations of support for brutalized students resulted in the resignation of Communist officials and the peaceful accession of Havel and Dubcek’s popular reformist government.
Over time, even the most authoritarian governments have learned it is in their interest to restrain police when responding to student demonstrations. In this respect, Boren helps to correct the record on Tiananmen Square. Contrary to the impression conveyed by erroneous press reports, the students left in the square were allowed to walk out unscathed, while workers on the approach roads met the full force of the tanks’ advance in 1989. Even so, this new hands-off policy generally applies only to public space, where postmodern protesters and police indulge in intricate military maneuvers in order to win the role of the victim in media reportage. As any recently arrested protester will avow, police brutality can be unrestrained for those held in custody.
But the Tiananmen Square example also reminds us of the class-specific response of the medieval monarchs. Boren tends to underestimate the persistence of class interests shared by rulers and protesters. In our own system of mass higher education, the most active students (“the best and the brightest”) are often those who see themselves as presumptive heirs to power, whether moral or political. This helps to explain why students have always been most impressive when taking on their own national elites. With Seattle and Genoa under their belts, it remains to be seen if anti-globalization activists can lead as effectively against transnational powers, as the student anti-sweatshop movement has done, or whether they will continue to serve as foot soldiers for the anti-capitalist road show. Which would still be more than welcome, if you ask me.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 7, 2001