Sunday, March 09, 2008

Mounting a Protest

There is a fragile spirit of student activism rising up as surely as the crocuses of spring poke through in my garden. I don't know whether to thank George Bush for a misbegotten war or Barack Obama for his calculated and eloquent message of youth's possibilities, but it's popping up and taking some pretty interesting shapes. On my campus (and on more than a dozen campuses around the country), a revival of the sixties phenomenon Students for a Democratic Society is planning a Walk Out Against the War for March 20th, the fifth anniversary of the start of the war in Iraq. I think it's swell. I hope lots and lots of students walk out of class – even when, especially when, they will miss something "important" – to attend the teach-in on the quad. I hope there will be a counter-protest, something that seems likely based on nasty opinion pieces in the student newspaper. I hope that any student who has a strong opinion will find a way to express that opinion without judging or demeaning any one else. They will do that if we teach them how – if we ourselves refrain from judging or demeaning. This is, of course, easier said than done.

It matters how we view the war in Iraq. Whatever your position on its original wisdom or current status, you must acknowledge that when young Americans and even younger Iraqis are in danger, that we are bound to consider carefully next steps. Careful consideration takes dialogue across difference. "Dialogue" suggests speaking and listening. Listening means hearing and wrestling with the position articulated by another.

Adults (faculty members, student affairs personnel) can model the kind of dialogue – speaking and listening – about the protest itself that we hope students can demonstrate with respect to the war issue. And university personnel seem to be doing just that. The administration and faculty union have taken a joint position that encourages free speech while reminding students that any action taken has consequences – and that it's within an instructor's rights to hold students accountable for class absence. This is a wonderful lesson in responsibility, the ability to respond in a fitting way in complicated circumstances. Young people will develop responsibility when they have the chance to practice it. This is one such chance. Whether or not an individual student walks out is not the critical element. The fact that they are confronted with this choice is a good thing. They may not succeed admirably in their decision-making, but I am quite sure they will learn something important, especially if the adults around them are listening carefully and responding thoughtfully.

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