[Edit: Jason Del Gandio is an alum of SIUC. He’s done significant scholarly work in the rhetoric of activism.]
Occupy Your Education:
A Note to Students about Changing the World
by Jason Del Gandio
The current Occupy Movement has captured people’s imagination and refocused the national discussion on issues of economic injustice, social stratification, and corruptions of American democracy. Contrary to what some people might think, the Occupy Movement is not composed solely of “young, idealistic college kids.” People of many different ages, ethnicities, and ideological persuasions are involved. But there is no doubt that many — but surely not all — Occupy participants attend, will attend, or have attended college. This raises an interesting question: What role does higher education play in the formation of the Occupy Movement and/or social movements in general? I want to specifically address current and future students: Should your college education help you organize and participate in social movements? Should your college experience help you become an agent of social change? What is and what can be the relationship between higher education and attempts to change the world?
At first glance there appears to be no inherent connection between a college education and social justice. Universities are organized around different areas of study, many of which have nothing to do with social movements. While sociology and political science departments might offer courses in gender inequities and/or transnational global movements, math and science do not. Other departments — like business and marketing — might actually resist or ignore such social/political issues. While some schools do cater to issues of justice, democracy, and political transformation, this is neither common nor obligatory. College is about education rather than radical social change.
This is not to ignore the rich history of campus activism: the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Students for a Democratic Society, and the whole anti-Vietnam War era; the Latin American solidarity work and the Campus Outreach Opportunity League of the 1980s; the United Students Against Sweatshops that began in 1997; the Campus Antiwar Network and the New SDS of the mid-2000s; California’s statewide protests against cuts to education in 2009 and 2010; and the current call to Occupy Colleges (OccupyColleges.org).