Society should embrace student activism, free exchange of ideas

David Dam

For the past few weeks, students at over 100 colleges and universities organized protests calling for racial and social reforms, notably sparked by protests at the University of Missouri. Other nationwide protests, such as last week’s Million Student March, focused on student debt and college tuition. No matter what our views are, we should all embrace student activism.

College protests have faced scrutiny by many spectators. Instead of focusing on their messages, many have instead chosen to criticize the protesters’ tactics. Critics are outraged at how students could rudely force and demand administrators to resign. Others think students should instead sit down to hold a calm discussion rather than start a protest. 

Discussions have failed to address these issues for years. Institutionalized racism, accumulating student debt, rising college tuition and many other problems are evidence of this. Student activists would argue protests are the only way for the discussion to be taken seriously.

Historically, student protests have shifted attitudes within the country. Students protested apartheid in 1985 and over 300 were arrested. Thousands of students were among the first who opposed the Vietnam War. Now, officials at many college campuses are working to address student concerns. English freshman Rebekah Edwards said she believes protests have served as a collective voice for certain students to raise awareness on issues they feel are not addressed.

“I think student activism through protests is one of the most important and effective ways to initiate social change,” Edwards said. “The very vocal and tangible support and solidarity that protests provide helps in overcoming the intimidation and discomfort that often follows expressing your views by yourself.”

Even here at UT, student-organized protests have been controversial. Students from the Palestine Solidarity Committee were involved in an altercation during their protest that interrupted a public event at UT’s Institute for Israel Studies. As UT reviews this confrontation, one cannot dismiss the importance of ideas such protests initiate, even if one disagrees with their message and methods. UT-Austin President Gregory Fenves issued a statement supporting the exchange of ideas.

“The freedom to engage in challenging conversations openly and responsibly is absolutely vital to what we do,” Fenves said. “Our students and faculty benefit from an environment that encourages this free exchange of ideas — and in which everyone is able to both share their views and let others do the same.”

As long as opinions exist, many will still think that student protests are rude or mistaken. However, students’ perspectives are a sign of their engagement with the real world. People who dismiss these protesters dismiss the real problems millions face across this nation. Instead of trivializing protests on the basis of whether we agree with their ideals or methods, we should instead acknowledge the problems they highlight.

Dam is a linguistics and Spanish freshman from Cedar Park. Follow him on Twitter @daviddamwrite.