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Student Radicalism Versus Student Entitlement

What is it with university students and their sense of entitlement?  Obviously I say this with a clear understanding of my own position as a former university student, and with the understanding that I am only speaking of some university students.  It is all too easy to assume that every university student is privileged––but this is not two or three decades ago and I am often in charge of classes where the majority of my students come from poor and racialized families.  Of course their university education is being subsidized by a massive and future debt: our provincial and federal governments took their cue from the banks and realized that student loans, like credit card debt, could lead to massive amounts of profit.  So just as credit cards are given out to everyone these days, so are student loans.

Clearly graduate school will remain closed to many of these students: the farther up you get in academia the more privilege retains its traditional trappings… until, by the time you hit the realm of actually existing tenure, you discover that everyone is an old anglo-saxon male who thinks that sleeping with undergrads in exchange for grades is still pretty cool. [True story: in the first year of my PhD I actually had a tenured professor tell me at a party that he missed the days when it was considered acceptable to sleep with his students in exchange for grades.  He also admitted, proudly as if he had integrity, that after sleeping with one of his students he still gave her a "C"... And he thought this was funny.]

But I'm speaking of those university students who think that, by the very fact that they are in university, they are the best and brightest of society.  And though they may never bother to show up for class, and might hand me multiple doctors notes at the end of the year to explain why they missed everything and turned everything in late, they still expect something around 80% as a final grade because, hey, I'm their employee.  And since I do not possess tenure, and am working shite contract jobs, they spend most of the time targeting people like me in their emails instead of the sanctified tenured professors.

At the same time, however, there is this strange beast called "student activism"––that also affected me throughout my entire university days––where students at university become extremely politicized by the material they encounter.  Student activism is almost cliched, some rite of passage that many students pass through before becoming comfortable liberals, a point of temporary politicization that, if not developed into something more mature, remains trapped within the university context.  Student activists rarely work outside of the incestuous world of the already mobilized left.  Student activists think according to the boundaries of the university, and that the limits of activism and mobilization are student organizations.

But student activists, and the ideology of being a student activist (an ideology that often persists after one has left the university, returning in the form of the "experienced activist" who hangs out, sometimes like the creepy old pot-smoking hippy in your apartment building, primarily with student groups), is connected to that sense of entitlement demonstrated by those grade-grubbing students who think they always deserve to pass.  Unaware that there is a larger world, and larger history of activism/mobilization, the student activist often imagines that the university is the zenith of leftwing activism and that student activists are the most important activists, have the most to contribute, are going to change the world––the world meaning, of course, just the university.

There is a definite religious sentiment to this position due to its inability to think beyond the ideology of academic life, not to mention that its a dogma grown from a congregational context of already converted, or very easily converted, radicals.  And like the churched missionary who finally realizes the limits of hir religious praxis due to its lack of depth, the student activist might eventually walk away from radical politics altogether once the word of the university activist fails, as it will, to take root in the general population.

And yet there is also the fact that the university provides a context that can foster radicals by placing them in contact with material, with a conceptual comprehension of life, that they might not otherwise encounter outside of the university.  Now while it is true that it is also a problem that the university limits/delimits access to intellectual resources, it is still a fact that student radicalism is so common that it has become cliched.  We need to ask why it is so common and why so many of us were radicalized as students, just as we need to ask why so many more of us end up resigning and/or "selling out."

Sometimes in our rush to dismiss the possible privilege (though it is not always privileged) and limitations (though it sometimes can be effective) of student/academic activism we overlook its advantages as a training ground for future, long-term activists––as point where, due to access to knowledge and the time to engage with this knowledge, political education is very possible.  On the other hand, as noted above, sometimes we want to stay religiously focused on student activism, branching out only into the mainstream and self-perpetuating left, refusing to see that there can be something more than another student affinity group, panel discussion, or rally in a university space.

This contradiction of student radicalism is nothing new.  During the Cultural Revolution in China, after all, it was student radicals who began that tumultuous revolution within the revolution––rebel students who Mao met and exhorted to bombard the headquarters.  And yet, as William Hinton's Hundred Day War reveals, student radicalism led to typically arrogant student factionalism where those who helped initiate what Badiou calls "the last great revolution" began fighting amongst each other for the stupidest political reasons.  Many also acted arrogantly towards those outside of the student class.  Workers and peasants had to be sent into Tsinghua University, for example, in order to stop the students from slaughtering each other indiscriminately.

Again that sense of student entitlement: we are smart because we have time and access to intellectual resources, we are better than people who do not have this access, and nothing outside of the university and the limitation of student demands matter.  At least for the student cadres at Tsinghua university there was something large at stake, and even if their radicalism degenerated into petty factionalism they initially began with a vision that was greater than the university.  A vision swallowed by petty student arrogance, true, but definitely a vision that was more important and more revolutionary-grounded than the cynical and/or utopian visions of many student radicals today.

Although the contradiction of student radicalism was at its sharpest in the GPCR, it still echoes across space and history––from May 1968 to the student movements in the North American late-60s––until it has become a rather dim and muddled echo here and now at the centres of capitalism.  The great demands of the student movement of the GPCR, or even May 1968 (which we must remember was inspired largely by the Cultural Revolution), have been substituted by capitulationist demands for university funding, "free speech" (I have watched more than one campus radical movement get demolished by degenerating into liberal strategies), democratic access (but with no deep analysis of democracy), and by-and-large social democratic reforms.  At the very least these student movements, because of the possibilities presented by university spaces, need to return to making those demands made by their forbearers.  At the most, they need to stop being essentially and limited student movements.


  1. What a great post! I could sign my name to every word of it.

    I happened to go to grad school with children of very very rich people. I will never forget how the same person would pontificate about his passionate Marxist beliefs and then almost in the same breath would start complaining that his factory in a third-world country wasn't bringing in as much profit as he'd hoped ad maybe it was time to sell it and start buying land.

    It would be very useful to print this post out and start distributing it to student activists.

  2. Thanks. Your story is clearly one of the more obvious expressions of this contradiction: would that it was always so obvious!


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