Not instead of, mind you, but in addition to. We all know elite colleges and college-watchers are aflutter with the recent batch of campus protests. A dean at Claremont McKenna was roasted for inappropriately worded sympathy. An instructor at Yale was blasted for inappropriately worded revelry. Cafeteria workers at Oberlin were attacked for inappropriately sautéed chicken.
With good reasons, pundits have excoriated these overly precious effusions of moral indignation. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH know, I’m bullish overall on this round of campus activism. But I think we old folks should humbly remind today’s students of some of the more elementary rules of social activism. In short, we need to remind today’s activists that it is more important to hit em where it hurts than to garner big negative headlines.
What effect do today’s protests have? They allow people around the country to laugh up their sleeves at the ways fancy students react to the tiniest smidgens of intellectual discomfort. That is not their aim. Rather, I think today’s protests are, at heart, admirable attempts to make elite colleges more truly inclusive, more truly welcoming.
That is an enormously important goal. If elite colleges remain the province of an already privileged minority, we will see nothing but a fierce doubling-down of America’s yawning class divide.
Today’s elite university students are in a unique position to change the game. If students can push colleges to do more than change their ideological window-dressing, they might make higher education more welcoming to all.
But just chanting and blocking aren’t enough.
Elite colleges these days only retain their inflated prestige due to their ability to set potential students against one another. The competition for spots at elite schools has become fiercer than ever. That allows the top schools to reject most applicants, retaining their “selective” status and feeding the vicious cycle.
What can today’s campus radicals do? Go on an application strike. If no top students applied to Oberlin, Yale, or Claremont McKenna, the elite status of those schools would be instantly deflated. That is something school administrators absolutely could not allow. They would be willing to make real, dramatic changes to their admissions policies in order to bring back top applicants.
Could it work? Probably not, because applicants have nothing in common except their deep insecurities and hyperactive resume-building. And this scheme would face the eternal problem of labor solidarity. If a few scabs chose to take advantage, the entire scheme would be defeated.
Moreover, as Peter Greene has recently noted, elite college students today are literally killing themselves in their competition with their fellow applicants. That sort of mindset does not lend itself to picket-line solidarity.
Plus, this kind of activism would require real sacrifice on the part of student activists. They would have to gamble with their collegiate futures. Instead of just protesting on Monday, then graduating and moving into their high-powered careers on Tuesday, this plan might leave them out in the cold, forced to attend less-Olympian schools.
Nevertheless, I think it’s worth talking about. The real problem of inclusion at today’s top universities is not a question of culturally appropriative Halloween costumes or cafeteria offerings. The real problem, instead, is that students are fighting each other tooth and nail for admission. Only students who are already privileged stand a chance to get into the even-more-privileged world of high-end higher education.
Change that, and you could make some real changes in the inequities of schools and society.