Student Activism :
Truth and False Prophets

@26 March 2001


I am a member of the "Vietnam Generation". The foundation mould of my political outlook was formed in discussions and demonstrations against the American Government's crass and counterproductive engagement in the Vietnamese post-colonial liberation struggle.

Here were agents from The Land of The Free openly buttressing a corrupt and reactionary regime, and lying to the world about it without shame. Worse, my own Australian government was giving unqualified support to this American duplicity, even at the possible cost of putting my own life on the line through military conscription. The supreme justification for all this skullduggery was a cock-and-bull story about "the domino effect" -- unless a line were drawn in the jungle, we would all be swept away by communism. We concluded that the whole murderous charade was probably motivated by career games in the American establishment.

On the follow-me principle of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend", it was also a common intellectual assumption of the time that communism couldn't be all that bad if the likes of US military supremo, General Westmoreland, said it was awful. I myself never made that last Jesuitical leap of logic, but it seemed obvious that the American penchant for driving all the champions of moderation out of power was a truly dumb way to fight the new fascism.

The personal legacy of this Vietnam consciousness raising in young adulthood was a lifelong skepticism about power and the would-be powerful. But there were other spin-offs too. One was the assumption that the causes adopted by the educated youth of the age, that is, the students, would always be in the vanguard of enlightenment. That is certainly how students would prefer to see themselves.

Alas, accumulated experience and a wider reading of history, has made me increasingly skeptical of the proposition that students are typically in the vanguard of anything but their own fashion statements. Sometimes they are on the side of the angels, but just as often they are dupes.

All too frequently in the real world, students argue for intolerance, persecution and reaction as "a means to an end". Their argument is always one of building a "better" world. They have yet to learn that the journey is usually more important than the destination. For all their intelligence, experience has not yet taught them the complexity of human motives, nor the persistence of human perversions. It is no accident that today's student leaders are usually tomorrow's oligarchs, factional politicians, and bureaucratic opportunists.

The grimmest example of student deviance in all of history is surely Mao Tee Tsung's Cultural Revolution. There the Chinese nation's students were willing agents of an evil old man in the greatest pillage of a culture ever perpetrated, not to mention the persecution and murder of millions of innocent people, including their own parents. The devastation was so absolute that a kind of poetic justice came into play, because that generation of youthful barbarians, as a group, undermined their own education and life chances.

On a more modest scale, it is student "intellectuals" who are on the cutting edge of intolerance, repression, and religious conservatism throughout much of the present day Muslim world. This is doubly tragic since Muslim peoples taken overall are amongst the least educated and worse governed of all large human groups. With the clarity of youthful idealism they know that everything "American" is bad, and that blowing away anyone or anything that makes money is "good". Nor does it give them the least twinge of conscience to carry a cellular phone from a multinational company, along with a pack of semtex explosive. The tolerance and common sense abundantly found in their own holy book, the Koran, gets short shrift.

Student zealism has a long history. Korea, amazingly, has one of the oldest known traditions of tertiary education in the world. Along with that goes perhaps the world's oldest tradition of student protest. Throughout five hundred years of Yi Dynasty misrule it is the Confucian academies of students who, again and again, protested at any deviation from neo-Confucian orthodoxy (which was as narrow as any Muslim, Christian or Jewish fundamentalism). It was the students above all others who sought to impose on an unwilling Korean population Chinese customs of marriage, religion-cum-philosophy, manners, female repression, anti-mercantilism, and much else that was seriously destructive of Korea's long-term independent development and survival. At their door can be laid a considerable part of the blame for the extended decline and failure of Korea as a civilization, until the modern era.

The preceding examples could be multiplied. There are also, of course, many instances of student revolt leading to the fall of corrupt and repressive regimes. We have to ask though what lessons can be drawn from the frequent historical ill-effects of student activism. One lesson, perhaps, is a profound consequence for notions of democracy, and its relationship to government by the supposedly wise.

Intelligence is a many splendoured gift. For each man or woman, human talents come in a dazzling and unbalanced array from nature. Nevertheless, we are quick to equate narrow cleverness with wisdom and even goodness. A cool look around the neighbourhood should be enough to persuade any thoughtful person that there are at least as many clever fools and clever scoundrels as there are clever sages. It is naive to expect our clever students to be, or even to become, clever sages. The largest number will become foolish old men and women who are good at doing several small things, as has always been the case. Yet all of them must remain our neighbours.

If we are to live in harmony, the small things which each of us is good at must be allowed to flourish, and our wider foolishness must be curbed by the particular clevernesses of all our similarly lopsided neigbours. If we wait for a great leader to order all this messiness, we will certainly be led astray by a foolish but dangerous man with a swollen head. Nor will it help to insist on finding such a great man to vote for, because advertising agencies will deliver us a fraud, the image but not the substance.

No, in the end we have to discover a way to accommodate each other's foolishness, and accept from each whatever small talent they are able to offer. When, occasionally, the offering is especially dazzling, we have to find a way off accepting that too, and build on it, without disinheriting the participation of all those with more modest talents. This must be done, because however great or modest the talents of each man or woman, their hopes and ambitions will be equally immodest. To deny government in some sense to anyone is to deny them full adulthood. This is the full challenge of democracy, and we have yet to figure out how to do it really well. The demagogues, and the captured minds of students, might find slogans an easy substitute for the puzzle of full democracy. We need more cunning answers than that.

All opinions expressed in Thor's Unwise Ideas and The Passionate Skeptic are entirely those of the author, who has no aim to influence, proselytize or persuade others to a point of view. He is pleased if his writing generates reflection in readers, either for or against the sentiment of the argument.

"Student Activism: Truth and False Prophets" copyrighted to Thor May; all rights reserved 2001

return to Thor's Unwise Ideas index
e-mail Thor May