Fulle: Stop pitting activism against education

Matt Fulle, Op-Ed Contributor

Sociology Prof. Beth Redbird recently brought a public relations spokesman from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to speak to her class. Student protests promptly shut down the lecture. I walked by the demonstration on my way to Norris University Center. Though protests have become commonplace over my four years at Northwestern, this particular one made national news.

A Fox News video read “No Room for Debate: Northwestern Students Shut Down ICE Official.” Time reported that Redbird said “she had been hoping to start a dialogue.” And yes, free speech is important. But habitual talk of “debate” and “dialogue” shows how we pit activism against education when activism should be educational. Embracing activism as part of higher education would open the door to building a generation of politically active students by teaching them how to make change.

Northwestern’s response chided the protests as “disrespectful, inappropriate and contrary to the values of the University.” This defensive response is nothing new. But the defensive instinct can distract from legitimate concerns.

The students protesting ICE’s representation on campus argued that the lecture could be “disturbing and harmful” to undocumented individuals on campus. These students weren’t decrying a violation of an intellectual “safe space.” They believed that ICE represented a threat to their actual safety and that of their families.
But we don’t have to pit students’ concerns against the value of healthy debate. Nor do we have to pit activism against education. In fact, a shift to considering activism as enriching higher education would benefit everyone.

This shift would open the door for frank dialogue about students’ concerns and a discussion regarding systematic solutions for university communities. University administrators have already declared they would not disclose the immigration status of students, faculty or staff to federal authorities. Though it may seem like it, student interests and University interests are not diametrically opposed. Also, an embrace of activism would help strengthen the next generation of America’s political leaders. Redbird said, “I told my students today: knowledge is power.” And she is right. But I’ve learned just as much about how the world works in my extracurricular work in politics as I have in the classroom. Universities should build relationships with activists that ensure activism dovetails with formal education.

What does that look like in practice? Here are two ideas: First, stop focusing on free speech. Instead, when activists organize for a cause, use campus as a microcosm of the real world to teach students how power really works. University decision-making processes are black boxes for many students. So, teach students how decisions are made. Doing so would help them exercise the mental muscles necessary to navigate politics that go unused in the vacuum of academic discussion.

Second, think of activism as a set of teachable skills. During my time at NU, for instance, I helped start and co-facilitated Northwestern’s Social Justice Advocacy Fellowship in partnership with University administrators. The six-month program taught undergraduates concrete organizational skills through proven curriculum, guest speakers and hands-on experience with Chicago-based organizations. The fellows have said they learned skills not covered in academia, like how to get in the room with decision makers and navigate negotiations with those people.

Fortunately, our current political climate is the perfect time to make this shift. Imagine if the student protesters of the ’60s and ’70s had been empowered by their institutions instead of being demonized in the news and popular culture. Today, some call us snowflakes. But imagine if our generation — the most highly educated and diverse generation in American history — left its campuses with the practical skills to mobilize and overcome political barriers.

Northwestern has taken steps in the right direction, but its response to the recent protest shows how deep-seated the instinct is to pit activism against education. There’s more at stake than the integrity or values of the ivory tower. Higher education institutions across the country should take advantage of our current political climate to help build a new generation of political leaders.

Matt Fulle is a Communication senior. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.