By Brian Hamilton
The last five years have seen an explosion of protest movements, from Tahrir Square to Zuccotti Park to Baltimore. They’ve targeted austerity measures in Greece, racist policing in Ferguson, underfunded schools in Chicago, and crumbling infrastructure in Flint. These movements have been energizing and stunningly effective. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that their energy has spread to college campuses (unless perhaps you believed the claim that Millennials are apathetic and self-absorbed). Student activists have played an important role in wider protest movements all along, but increasingly, they are turning their scrutiny on the university system itself. What began with Occupy’s concerns regarding student loan debt continued with feminist mobilization against campus sexual violence, and caught fire last fall around charges of institutional racism.
These student movements have been subjected to the same boringly familiar litany of complaints that all the others have. They’re exaggerating. They’re naive. They have no solutions to the problems they’re addressing. Their tactics are destructive. They glorify victimhood. But these complaints take on a special cast—also maddeningly predictable—because the organizers are young. Student activists are coddled, whiny, thin-skinned, oblivious to the consequences of their own actions. These protests are just another symptom of our failing schools.
On the contrary. These movements embody the potential of a liberal arts education.
One of the striking things about recent student protest movements is their focus on how their colleges name things. That focus may be typical, actually, of grassroots social protest in general. Lacking institutional power, one key strategy available to social movements is to deploy the power of names to reveal and reshape the contours of our collective imaginations. Think of Occupy’s invocation of “the 99%”—a new name that helped create a new community of solidarity (not least by naming a new enemy). Think too of the Black Lives Matter mantra, “Say Her Name.”
Last fall, the names of schools and buildings and staff positions became important nodes of organization for many student protests. At Amherst, students successfully advocated for the removal of “Lord Jeff,” a mascot commemorating the school’s namesake, who distributed smallpox-infected blankets to Native Americans as a weapon of war. At Yale, students demanded that a number of residential colleges be named or renamed for people of color, and that the title of “master” for live-in faculty mentors be abolished. At Princeton, students criticized the naming of the Woodrow Wilson School of International and Public Affairs in light of Wilson’s racist legacy.
To be sure, students are connecting these issues of naming with wider structural problems. The Black Liberation Collective, a group tracking and advocating the efforts of activists across the country, has identified three core demands: that Black students and faculty be proportional to the national percentage, that Black and indigenous students be given free tuition, and that schools divest from prisons and invest in local communities. Changing the name of a building while leaving oppressive structures in place would be an exercise in mystifying euphemisms. Student protestors know that.
But they also know that names of schools and buildings and staff positions are not incidental to these structural issues. The names a community adopts reflect and reify that community’s values, its range of vision, and its distribution of power. Critiquing those names and suggesting new ones is itself a political practice. These words help hold up the walls of the racist structures we live in. They are symbols, yes, but they effect what they signify.
My favorite definition of the liberal arts comes from Jonathan Z. Smith: a liberal education is training in argument about interpretations. Put another way, college students should be learning to see that words make worlds. They should be learning to choose their words thoughtfully, in full view of the social, ethical, spiritual power that words possess. They should also be learning to contest the worlds that others are making with their own words.
In my introductory course on religion, one of my central arguments is that it matters how we name things. Whether this or that institution gets called “religious” makes an immediate difference for how it is taxed. Whether a philosophical or ethical commitment gets called “religious” matters for how it will be positioned in public debate. Is ISIL a “radical Islamic” organization? “fundamentalist”? “jihadi”? Different names highlight different qualities and draw on different conceptual vocabularies. They belong to different classificatory schemata, which cut things up in different ways. Each name constructs a different world for us to live in.
I want every student who comes through my classroom to question the way things are named. Rather than taking any given name as obvious or simply “true,” I encourage them to ask three questions. First, who gave the thing that name? Second, what was at stake in naming it that way? And third, how else might it be named, or how else has it been named by others? We can ask these questions about anything, from abstract concepts like “religion” to concrete things like rivers, animals, people—or school buildings.
Such questions are inescapably political. They immediately involve us in issues of social power and organization. But they are also central to the intellectual work of the liberal arts. They help students to see that words have meaning not only in relation to other words, but in relation to the social and material situations in which they’re used. They help us to make arguments about interpretations.
So when student activists call attention to the way their institutions have named things, connect those names to broader cultural and institutional patterns, and suggest new names to fit new patterns, I see liberal learning in motion. I also see a kind of politics—one rooted in the values of the liberal arts—that gives me hope.
I doubt, though, that we teachers can take much credit. In many ways, these students are outperforming us in their critical prowess. They see our colleges and universities more clearly than we do. It’s worth considering where they’re learning these skills, if not from us. I imagine much of it is owed to what is derisively called “hashtag activism” (Black Twitter, the feminist blogosphere, etc.); and surely they’re also learning from other social movements. But wherever they’re learning it, we should celebrate it as a victory for the liberal arts. Maybe it’s time we learned something from them.
Brian Hamilton PhD is a social ethicist and political theologian. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Religion at Florida Southern College.