Student agency


In the weeks after the Kent State killings in 1970, I grew increasingly perplexed and withdrawn. My campus—I was attending Utica College in upstate New York—shut down and students seemed triumphant. Triumphant, that is, in the matter of standing for a moment on center stage. But I was unhappy.

For it wasn’t really “students” who were getting attention, only individual students. Along with the individual members of the faculty who were shepherding their activities. People were using the tragedy for personal ends cloaked in somewhat egalitarian rhetoric, an age-old practice but one that I, an eighteen-year-old college freshman, did not have the experience to understand.

By the time another year rolled around, I had abandoned the progressive, antiwar movement. My beliefs had not changed: I remained as committed as ever to the ideals I had first espoused years earlier. But I no longer trusted student and faculty leaders—and they were the ones, from my position as an undergraduate, I needed to be able to rely on.

Almost a decade later, as a new graduate student, I took a job as the editor of a monthly tabloid for a university environmental organization. We ran mainly on student fees, a “positive checkoff” on the bill for tuition and fees. Another organization was trying to get a foothold on campus, one of Ralph Nader’s Public Interest Research Groups. It wanted a “negative checkoff” for it alone, arguing its activities were for the benefit of all students, therefore, all students should pay unless they actively decide not to. Theirs something of an “agency fee” such as unions rely on. The problem was that the PIRG, coming from outside, had not been established by the students the way a union is by its constituency. It was as though a union had come in and, without a vote by the workers, claimed to represent the workers and, therefore, should be paid by the workers. The argument revolved around what a wonderful person Nader was—again, taking agency from the students and giving it to a star.

There’s another side to this focus on the star: When I became a full-time academic something more than a decade ago, people like David Horowitz and Anne Neal were attacking the faculty—by singling out what they determined were the leftist stars and branding all of us with their so-called failings. This continues today through outrages such as the Professor Watchlist and it even extends to students, who are being tarred with the ‘snowflake’ sobriquet unfairly because a few ask for consideration of individual needs.

Part of all of this is a fault of our systems. Colleges are structured to give maximum support to their best students (even as they claim to provide service to the weak). Honor societies, internships, and a panoply of other perks are available to those students who give the schools what they want. The same is true for the faculty: Its members are rewarded for meeting preconceived standards, given grants and promotions for doing exactly what their elders desire. Both student and faculty stars are held out as representatives of all the others (though none of the others gather their rewards or live quite so highly). Though chosen for their successes, valedictorians are presented as the voices of students they, in fact, have little in common with.

In the classroom, we teachers tend to focus on those few students at the center of the first few rows, the ones who already know how to earn their A. We are proudest of them (though most of them have simply learned how to manipulate us), of students who are going to receive high grades no matter what we do—when we really should be prouder of the flailing student who, with our help, gets it together to earn a legitimate C. But we are never going to be rewarded for that.

Even the classroom is structured for stars. There’s an explicit meritocracy in our educational structures.

Professionally, we honor as great teachers those with greatest success in creating high scholarly profiles—as if that transfers to the classroom. We think little of community-college teachers, contingent hires and adjuncts and ignore their teaching skills, impressive though they might be: They aren’t the real and important professors, the ‘master teachers’ of Harvard and Stanford. The meritocracy tells us that those employed by prestigious research universities are inherently better than the rest—and few of us are objecting.

Still, plenty of professors do attempt to combat the hierarchical nature of contemporary higher education—but their success has never been substantial. Having students sit in a circle, the instructor in the same type of chair, may make it look like an egalitarian process is going on, but the teacher still submits grades so still controls the room. This isn’t what Paolo Freire was talking about. A ‘flipped classroom’ may make it seem like the students can be more active while at school—but what it really does is transfer passivity to home while affirming the inaccessibility and importance of the star professor providing the video lecture.

The recent craze for universal ‘learning outcomes,’ instead of empowering students (and faculty, for that matter), further restricts student agency, making education not exploration but recitation. Freedom to go off on tangents disappears, along with student control of their own education.

Any real revolution in education is going to have to involve disrupting restrictive structures and is going to have to start with students. But student generations are as short as their generational memories. A real revolution takes time and planning—and most students have moved on to other things by the time they have developed the skills and knowledge that could make them effective agitators. Some who are committed to change do manage to stay on within the system, transitioning to faculty status through graduate work, but, no matter how fervent their beliefs and stellar their ideals, they can no longer play the roles they once studied for. Plus, by virtue of the very system they oppose, they were generally stars themselves with very little understanding of the average student.

I hear often of teachers who want to bring ‘social justice’ into their classrooms, empowering students. However noble this goal may be, their methodology (along with the institutions they are acting within) undercuts them. Instead of engendering ‘social justice,’ they end up imposing it, creating what sometimes appears to be a new tyranny—especially to those students who see their own (often unexamined) status eroding. Worse: Because they are not ‘of’ the students, the behavior of these faculty members becomes akin to that of the neocolonial do-gooder, providing a new burden rather than real support.

What we on the faculty can do is to start providing the institutional memory students lack, teaching the history of student struggle, the language of past debates, the politics behind their successes and failures. We can give the students resources through the classes they take (especially in the humanities—one of the reasons so many on the right fear the humanities) but their actions must be theirs alone. We can’t even attempt to play shepherd; students have to combat the wolves around them themselves.

Teach, then, and teach even the worst student. Don’t lead and don’t protect. Anything else is often patronizing and is generally a continuation of a system that leaves most people behind.

Of course, it’s not quite so simple: How can we teach students who haven’t enough to eat, who are homeless, who are in abusive relationships? The list of obstacles is extensive. In our roles as citizens, we should be fighting to create safe spaces in which education can take place, alleviating these problems as best we can; in our roles as teachers, however, we should first be teaching student agency, the ability to take control of one’s own education—and then of one’s life.

A naïve view? Perhaps. But that doesn’t make it any less necessary.