Senior Professor, Art & Art History
My college days in Kansas were marked by a dedicated detachment from most things unpleasant. It was a popular American assurance that all would be forever well after the trauma of WWII—a view that came to symbolize the culture of the '50s. Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education, the U. S. Supreme Court decision that integrated the nation's public schools, unfolded in my own town, at my time, but without my ever hearing of it until the decision was done and public. Certainly, some of my classmates-of-color were aware, but in the main, we were concerned with other things and not part of the action. There was a sweet innocence about the time and we preferred to engage that, rather than the politics, injustice, poverty and calamity that would be the chosen fuel of student activism during following decades.
During the '60s I was a professor, and Vietnam changed the scene on college campuses dramatically and profoundly. Trustees and administrators around the country were either alarmed or terrified by the new spirit of student activism and the commitment to social, political and economic causes.
A college president thought to be encouraging student activism, as my president at Wisconsin State University-Whitewater did, risked being unemployed by his or her trustees. President Walker Wyman, an extraordinary scholar and administrator, resigned his presidency at Whitewater in 1967, in support of the right to rally in front of the student union. He became an early casualty of the WSU-W board's preference for the peace and quiet of the '50s.
Allan Bloom's book The Closing of the American Mind, along with countless sermons over years of Sundays, sought to discredit the cultural revolution that had taken place on many, if not all, of our nation's campuses.
My personal observation, having been in academe before, during and after the '60s, is that student activism may be the single most potent and effective learning tool available to college-level students. The rub inevitably comes when students start making independent judgments about what topics they choose to engage with their activism. Bloom claims that higher education made a fatal mistake in the '60s by letting the students seize the day and frame the issues, thereby surrendering the educational initiative and the content of campus discourse to "uninformed undergraduates." I think Bloom was dead wrong, preferring instead the pedagogy and philosophy of Paulo Freire, the brilliant Brazilian educator. Freire was jailed for instituting a highly successful program to teach illiterate Amazon basin farmers to read, protect their tribal land and ultimately vote—causes which were not popular with the Brazilian ruling-class. The farmers, however, did learn to read. If choice-of-issue is not granted a priori, activism tends to resemble assigned schoolwork or "virtuous" busywork.
How wonderfully ironic and refreshing it is to have been asked to share my recollections on the subject, in an official university magazine that celebrates, rather than deplores, the activism of its associated student body. Amazing!
Last fall, Drury students chose to aid the Joplin relief effort while others chose to travel to NYC to Occupy Wall Street, both fertile learning opportunities. In October, I spent three days at New York's Zuccotti Park and was delighted to find that the majority of the "occupants" were returning veterans and engaged students, not the communists, aging hippies or homeless ne'er-do-wells described in the media. It was a hopeful scene that was a long time in returning.
Those who were there will never forget it. Those who remember and have suffered the relentless disparagement of the '60s were overwhelmed.
Dr. Katie Gilbert
Assistant Professor of English
Undoubtedly, our worldviews are shaped at a young age by the circumstances in which we are raised. While that view shifts as we grow older, it forms our early understandings both of what is and what is possible. I was born, and spent a chunk of my childhood, in the city of Detroit in the 1970s. My parents were, and still are, progressive idealists who were very committed to integration and equality. Debates about politics were par for the course at our dinner table, and my parents were generous in their willingness to take both my sister and me seriously as we attempted to make sense of the world and voice our budding positions on issues. I was also fortunate at a young age to be surrounded by friends who were different from me, and from each other, in both their racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds.
So, while I've always believed in being connected to my world, and engaging in making it a more just place, I've never used the label "activist" to describe myself. To be active is simply to be alive to the world, not just alive in it.
In college I was the co-chair of a student group that advocated for the prevention of sexual assault. This was a heated time; it was the 90s, and public understanding of what qualified as sexual assault was shifting and widening. Placing yourself in the center of these debates meant facing real backlash. Such responses both frightened me and radicalized me; they first shut me down and then pushed me forward.
Now, as the interim director of the Women and Gender Studies program, and the faculty advisor to V Warriors (a student group that raises money and awareness for the treatment of women in the greater community), it's been fascinating to continue the work I began as a college student. There is a whole new wave of organizing, one that is driven mostly by 20 and 30-year-olds who are incredibly savvy at organizing online. And while the opportunities afforded women today are so different from those presented to my mother, there is still much work to do.
When I was a graduate student in Madison, Wis., our union of teaching assistants went on strike. Contract negotiations broke down, specifically over healthcare. Striking was illegal, and each of us had to decide whether or not we were willing to take such a step, as none of us quite knew what might be on the other end once we did. A colleague asked, rhetorically, "If we don't stand up for ourselves, who will?" He was right. If you don't put yourself out there, to fight for what you believe is right, who else is going to do it for you?
I believe that this is, in essence, what it means to be a citizen in a democracy: putting yourself out there, articulating what you believe and why, and sometimes throwing caution to the wind. It doesn't always work out the way you hope it will, but I've seen enough to know that real change is always possible.