Why Class Matters in Campus Activism

As 50,000 students in the United Kingdom took to the streets last week in protest of pending budget cuts for school tuition, it was hard not to wonder: Where is the student movement here in the U.S.?

There is one, to be sure. It's fueled, in large part, by the frustration of first-generation college students who are eager to make good on their parents' and grandparents' efforts to get the next generation to the promised land of higher education. And what a promised land it is -- high school graduates are three times more likely to live in poverty than college graduates, and eight times more likely to depend on public-assistance programs.

Last March, a national day of college-student demonstrations against tuition hikes and program cuts brought out crowds, sometimes nearly 1,000 strong, on many campuses across the United States. Eighty students took to the streets at the University of California, Berkeley, earlier this month to protest an 8 percent tuition hike. For years there has been a small but strategic group protesting budget cuts in the City University of New York system. The budget gap has led to $2.5 million in cuts at CUNY colleges since 2009. Before long, I'd predict, the movement will also gain momentum among young veterans at community colleges, especially in California where 16,000 vets and their dependents are using their GI Bill benefits.

But why are the U.K. crowds almost 500 times as robust as those in the U.S.? Why does the American movement to fight tuition hikes and funding cuts remain so anemic in comparison?

In no small part, it's because privileged students at America's colleges and universities generally don't take the issue personally. Those who are politically active tend to set their sights on distant horizons -- the poor in India, say, or the oppressed in Afghanistan. Without their privileged-kid allies, first-generation college students, immigrants, and students dependent on financial aid are going to have a hard time creating the kind of buzz that Britain has just produced.

Many of us from middle- and upper-income backgrounds have been socialized to believe that it is our duty to make a difference, but undertake such efforts abroad -- where the "real" poor people are. We found nonprofits aimed at schooling children all over the globe while rarely acknowledging that our friend from the high school football team can't afford the same kind of opportunities we can. Or we create Third World bicycle programs while ignoring that our lab partner has to travel two hours by bus, as he is unable to get a driver's license as an undocumented immigrant. We were born lucky, so we head to the bars -- oblivious to the rising tuition prices and crushing bureaucracy inside the financial aid office.

I know from whence I speak. As an undergraduate at Barnard College from 1998 to 2002, I felt a deep sense of commitment to "making a difference." I volunteered in a Head Start program in Harlem, protested the treatment of Amadou Diallo and Mumia Abu Jamal, had internships at the American Civil Liberties Union and the Children's Defense Fund, even studied abroad in South Africa where I taught poetry classes in a township high school. I was basically the poster child for privileged do-gooderism. But I didn't once consider taking action to ease the financial struggles of my peers at school, didn't once seek out a movement in my midst that might tackle the economic disparity in my own dormitory. I regret that.

The absence of a robust, multi-class student movement in this country is a small but profound manifestation of inequality writ large. In fact, the U.S. wealth gap is at its widest since 1928. A typical CEO, even in this economy, is paid more than 350 times that of the average worker. And as British public-health researchers Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett write in their recent book, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, it's not just the poor who lose out. "Great inequality is the scourge of modern societies," they write, arguing that in 11 key areas -- including educational attainment -- an entire society is brought down by inequality like that which America is presently experiencing.

This is not to argue that the U.K. doesn't have its own sizable wealth gap, but British students seem more motivated to act on behalf of economic rights than U.S. students, who have been encouraged from a young age to adopt the "boot strap" mentality. Privileged American college students need to see their self-interest in this movement. They need to recognize that they are inheriting an increasingly unequal society that not only contradicts fundamental American values but also threatens our collective quality of life and sense of domestic security.

Hannah Arendt wrote, "The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil." I would argue that a modicum of evil is also done by those who make up their minds to be good but neglect to tackle the challenges to which they are directly linked. Let's be real: For a privileged American teenager, the Liberian child with the bloated tummy actually rests lighter on the psyche than the nanny's kid. Until we consciously prioritize fighting inequities close to home, we -- the lucky, well-educated kids -- will be complicit in perpetuating a culture of poverty and a country of unacceptable disparity.

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