A Critique of the Autocracy of Student Activism
From the archives brings you old news today. As time passes, the news we report on changes, as does the way we report on it. Conversely, we’ve been covering some of the same issues since 1872. This opinion piece from 1970 condemns the state of student associations and activism during this student’s tenure at Mount Allison. The piece has been edited by the current Argosy staff due to length and the inclusion of a quote that contained a racial slur. Hall graduated in 1970 and returned to his birthplace, Bermuda, to practice criminal law and later moved into politics. He had quite an eventful career and upon his death was declared a “Bermudan icon.” “Julian Hall Bermuda” is worth a Google search.
The following is an abridged version of the original article.
Oct. 16, 1970: Vol. C No. 4
It is apparent that student participation in university affairs has developed; both in quality and degree. Few will deny, moreover that these developments represent positive steps toward democratization of the university community. Yet, we might well ask: What of the future? Is the university really approaching a more effective, and just, democracy; where the student viewpoint will always be a significant variable in the formulation and implementation of university policy? Or, on the other hand, will this enlightened age, characterized by an unprecedented degree of student involvement, develop into another Dark Age; where the majority of student view is once again relegated to oblivion? Bleak, and perhaps unlikely, as this possibility may seem, current trends indicate that it might be more than possibility.
In the Dark Ages, “Student Affairs,” were very limited in scope. They involved the planning of class parties, dances, writing of the student newspaper, and other such past-times of limited consequence and dubious importance. National student unionism began in 1926, with the formation of the National Federation of Canadian University Students (NFCUS).
The Age of Student Power led to the formation of the rival Canadian Student Assembly in 1937 . . . which eventually merged (with NFCUS) at the outbreak of the Second World War; and this marked the beginning of a vital interest on the part of NFCUS in the problems of higher education and social consciousness. However, close scrutinization of NFCUS records reveal that this was not altogether true. The malfunction of national unionism remained the fostering of good relations among universities through debating, intercollegiate competitions, etc. By the 1959 Congress, the admixture of two views on the function of national unionism can be seen in two resolutions passed: “12-NA-59 Resolved that the Short Story Contest be renamed the Literary Contest, and that the Contest and its contest be redefined.” “29-NA-59 That the National Executive cooperative with WUSC to assist Algerian students.” Mount Allison’s contribution to this particular congress is noteworthy: “That a university be mandated to investigate the possibility of producing a National University Songbook.” (Perhaps the Music Students wielded considerable power at the time!)
Attempts were occasionally made on the National University boards all over the continent are opening their doors (and hearts???) to student bodies. Students are actively involved in decision-making at the highest functioning level of university legislature. They sit on a multitude of committees, where they may acquire an unprecedented degree of knowledge of the functioning of the university. Unfortunately, student effectiveness is sometimes diminished by the retention feelings of paranoic insecurity hindering articulation. More often than not, however, students are fully availing themselves of the opportunities before them of speaking up on issues of vital importance within the university experience.
The university is closer to another era of repression of the student viewpoint than we might like to believe. The demise of the “in loco parentis” ideal is in the process of giving way to another equally, if not more, harmful situation: I call it the “in loco fratris senioris” ideal.
What is happening, then, is that the idea of an oligarchical university government based on the academic seniority of faculty has been rejected. To fill the void left by this rejection, students are beginning to, in the creation of an active Canadian student identity, set up their own oligarchy based on seniority of radicalism. (You might notice that this is my first reference to the nebulous term ‘radical.’ I hope that it is my last.) The political development of the student movement was based on the idea of democratic expression by the majority of students. As always happens, this has proven impossible. Yet, while we may accept the existence of democracy as an ideal only to be found in mythology, we may still recognize it as a goal worth approximation. The liberalization of university policy necessitated the choosing of representatives of the student body.
Student councils have taken on new dimensions, and new tasks; they now hold responsibility for a multitude of issues, including the successful completion of an academic year. Besides the coordination of club and athletic activity, they now have to consider their policies on more relevant social issues of the day.
The student councils have implicitly “thrown in the towel” on representivity by changing their names to “administrative” councils. Student representatives are finding themselves jaded within the system. Most believe representivity to be a hopeless myth. Consequently many have gone to the opposite pole by representing their own views, rather than those of the students who have elected them. The formation of an oligarchical system within the student body has led to an oligarchical system within student affairs. The few who are now active in student affairs are, for the most part, concerned with “making university officials aware of what the students say they need.”
Is “in loco fratris senioris” here to stay? There are two obvious means of combating the problem, and putting and end to the continuing saga of the suppression of student opinion. Students must become less apathetic about their social existences; and the power of student councils should be lessened. Does it not seem sensible that, were student powers delegated to a wide number of people on committees and other university bodies there would be a greater corresponding chance of a cross-sectional representation of the student body.
Student bodies are generally autocratic in nature. This autocracy exists, not by virtue of their power, as much by virtue of the growing malaise within the student bodies of many universities. This malaise might be compared with a type of existential boredom a la Sartre — minus the intellectuality involved! Students have progressed through the stage of wondering who they are and who they’re doing, to the point of not giving a damn! This is where the oligarchies find their power, and this is where the dangers arise.
We have a choice to make. Either we abolish student institutions completely, or we take interest in them. In any event, we cannot allow the policies of the autocratic few usurp the wishes of the majority of university students. It is time that the patronizing attitudes of activists give way to the principle of democratic representation.