The Center for Public School Renewal

NOTE: Published in slightly different form by The Clearinghouse, October, 1971. Reprinted in Crucial Issues in Contemporary Education, ed. T.W. Hipple, Goodyear, 1973. [This essay is dated, but has echoes of modern concerns and illustrates the complexity in most educational issues.]

The Student Movement: Where Do You Stand?
by Barry McGhan

The Student Revolution has been with us long enough so that we can classify certain adult reactions to it. The following analysis of some of these reactions may give you an idea of the complexity of the issues of student activism and student participation in educational decision-making.

The Teacher Reaction - "Students are neither knowledgeable nor experienced enough to make sensible educational decisions."

Many teachers probably have a more gut-level reaction, viewing student power as a capricious threat to their own authority. But it is important to realize that there are different kinds of authority. There is the authority of position in an organization (regardless of competence); the authority of person(charisma); the authority of principle (moral or ethical codes); and the authority of knowledge and skill. While a teacher can exercise any of these types of authority in the right circumstances, it seems clear that the authority which is intrinsic to his work is that which is based on his special knowledge of subject-matter and learning theory. This authority has to be protected from the encroachments of non-professionals.

In general, we can say that "no item that is recognized on the basis of research and professional expertise as best for the education of pupils" is negotiable with students(1). For instance,this policy might mean that the topic of grades, about which there is considerable lack of agreement, could justifiably be negotiated with students, while the importance of the "discovery method" for teaching mathematics should probably not be the subject of negotiation. [There can be professional debates about the significance of processes and content, but such disagreements must stem from knowledge rather than ignorance, and so, students would not participate in these debates.] Even though it seems unreasonable to suggest that students should have any power over decisions falling within the educator's realm of expertise, there is no reason why students should not be consulted as much as possible.

In matters where no one is an expert, real student power is possible, although it is not always easily institutionalized. One problem is that the turnover in student personnel gives a formless appearance to issues and people on the student side, and makes it difficult to negotiate conflicts. The impermanency of the individual student's relation to the schools also means that they do not have to live with the consequences of poor decisions. And so there is a temptation to argue that they ought to be limited to participation in short-term policy making.

A final, often ignored, observation is offered here. It is that student participation in the decision-making process has to occur in relation to participation by a large number of other interested parties. There are only so many dollars to spend, and only so many decisions to be made. Consequently, an increase in student power may mean a decrease in someone else's power. Since teachers have only lately obtained a significant role in decision-making, it is unlikely that they will be willing to give up some of their new-found power to students.

The Administrator Reaction - "What can I do to anticipate and prevent disruptive expressions of student power?"

Often, people expressing this attitude discuss techniques for dealing with students by according them certain rights and making certain concessions to their demands, while at the same time drawing up contingency plans to deal forcefully with disruption. Clearly, the philosophy that "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" is sound, and most people would approve of efforts to prevent disruption and violence in the schools. But there are some dangers facing people who feel this way. One danger is that the fear of disruption will cause schoolmen to make changes just to appease students. This could lead to wanton discontinuance of beneficial policies and institution of harmful ones. Also, if changes are not made with honest regard for the rights--and needs--of students, the administrator's credibility may suffer. Another danger is that the changes may be purely cosmetic, and if so may only postpone disruption until students realize that fact.

There is another possible consequence of dealing with student activists too permissively. It has been found that universities with a strong student influence have become highly politicized, and have generally ceased to be academically distinguished(2). Secondary schools could suffer a similar adulteration of their academic role. When we talk about student participation in decision-making, we have to be very careful that we are talking about the kind and number of decisions that are appropriate to the students' level of maturity.

The Developmentalist Reaction - "This burst of youthful idealism, impatience with the established order, and an urge for action, is typical of this age group. They'll get over it."

It's true that high school and college students are typically at the peak of their mental and physical powers. The passions of life are strong in late adolescence, and students naturally seek to exercise some influence over their lives. But, it is a mistake to assume that student protest stems from nothing more than this. our society is far from perfect, and the young see the faults sharply. The pervasiveness of the mass media makes it difficult for them (unlike earlier generations) to hide from the social ills and threats to survival which beset us. Unfortunately, at the same time that their social conscience is stirred up, they find themselves in a virtually powerless position. In fact, things are now worse for teenagers than ever before--puberty occurs, on the average, two years earlier than it did at the turn of the century, and professions and skilled trades have extended their entrance requirements. Considering these changes, it's easy to see that students spend more time in the limbo of adolescence than did past generations. Even when they do reach the point where they can become full-fledged members of society, the system seems to want them to produce and consume goods and services more than it wants them to create the good society. While they are in this unhappy state "we stuff [them] with vitamins, we stimulate their sexuality with our advertising and our mass fantasies, we encourage them to dream and criticize [until] they are bursting with energy and self-importance."(3) What else can we expect from a generation brought up on instant news, instant technology and instant cream of wheat than that, driven by their idealism, they expect instant solutions to social problems as well? The consequence of being pushed forward on the one hand and being held beck on the other is that they become frustrated, and the frustrations find an outlet in school.

Some people feel that the structure of the schools may also aggravate the students' ambivalent state. They claim that secondary schools are too regimented and the students' role too passive, with few opportunities for important participation. Students react by forming subcultures closed to adults, from which they criticize schools and participate in demonstrations. Suggestions for reform sometime include calls for a relaxation of the rigid structure of school so that students can take on a greater role as they mature(4).

The "Liberal" Reaction - "The world is going down the drain, and we haven't done anything to stop it. We must heed the cries of the younger generation and give them what they want, for they are our salvation."

People who express this view indulge in two excesses. First,they seem to assume that the older generation has not tried to solve, or succeeded in solving, any critical societal problems. Second, they seem to assume that the younger generation will be able to succeed where the older has failed. These assumptions are unwarranted.

The older generation did not deliberately, through perversity or cowardice, permit the world to develop the problems it has (although such faults always play a part in mens' affairs). Rather, the older generation had mixed success in solving the problems it saw, with the means available to it. The younger generation will have to do the same, and because they have the same human frailties, they'll have their share of failures, too. We can hope that they will be more successful at problem-solving than the preceding generation (especially in view of the gravity of the problems that need solving), but we succumb to foolish romanticism if we assume that they will be more successful.

The "Conservative" Reaction - "We are in trouble with this younger generation not because we have failed our country, not because of materialism or stupidity, but simply because we have failed to keep that generation in its place, and failed to put it back there when it got out. We have the power; we do not have the will. We have the right; we have not exercised it."(5)

The hearts of those of us over thirty reach out to people who express this viewpoint. We seem to feel that everything will be all right if we can just return to the values, and ways of the "good old days." But, the fact is that society is different now then it was even ten years ago. More people, more pollutants, more complex tensions, more visible acts of violence at home and abroad, and more potentially dangerous political situations, exist now than before. New problems often require new solutions. It is comforting, but unrealistic, to think that we can solve these problems by just getting a grip on ourselves.

The Humanist Reaction - "The schools are dull, dreary places, and they treat students in regimented, impersonal and inhumane ways."

It's true that there are many things wrong with our schools, just as many things are wrong with society at large. In fact, some of the ills of society cause things to go wrong in the schools (e.g., racism). The problem here is partly one of over-reaction, for not everything about school is bad. Although the evils are serious, we should still proceed with care in bringing about change (without letting caution be an excuse for inaction). One of the unstated tenets of people who express this viewpoint seems to be that the individual always deserves more consideration than does society. However, this is an immoderate view; clearly, society has the right to expect certain kinds of behavior from the individuals in it. The balance between the rights of the individual and the rights of society is what democracy and the schools are all about. This means that we can't lash out against "regimentation" without clarifying what we mean. After all, a certain amount of regimentation (e.g., on the highway) is necessary; the important question is, how much is too much? Another belief that seems to be held by people in this category is that all students are naturally good and have a potential for great growth. They look at the schools and notice that students don't all seem to be turning out to fit their image. They also notice that schools have many faults, and they conclude that the schools are to blame for the way people turn out. It apparently does not occur to them that human nature might allow for both bright and dull individuals, regardless of the school's influence.

The Nonchalant Reaction - "Don't worry too much about all this student activism. After all, only a tiny fraction of students are involved."

Persons espousing this position go on to point out that the majority of students are well behaved and serious about their studies. They say that the activists only want to be consulted more--that they're not really after more actual power. They point out that most students are too interested in getting an education to be willing to spend the time it takes to guide an educational program. The following kinds of statistics are offered as evidence for this position. A survey showed that 85% of 2,000 college students felt that the most important things in life can only be understood through involvement, but only a third of them ever took part in regular discussion of national problems, and only 16% had participated in a demonstrations(6). The apparent point is that things aren't as bad as they seem, because most students don't make waves.

Advocates of this view seem unaware that education is a delicate proposition, and a little disruption goes a long way. Also, they don't seem to consider the possibility that the visible activism of a few represents the attitudes of a much larger body of students who don't demonstrate, but who support the demonstrators' goals.

In all fairness, it must be added that there is not much evidence that student activists really represent the visible portion of an iceberg of student discontent. Some people go so far as to theorize that the majority of students are passive and conformist because they have a psychological need to believe in the "system": denial of it would give them a terrific sense of insecurity, frustration and conflict. Two thirds of the students in one survey, for example, thought that the enforcement of school regulations was about right. The same fraction thought grading was fair. Thus, proponents of this theory say, the myth of institutional paternalism keeps the students from being alienated(7). If this theory has validity, then we may well want to consider whether we are fostering worthwhile behavior patterns and goals in our schools, or only ones which the students find tolerable.

Hopefully, the foregoing discussion has given you an insight into some of the opinions and attitudes about student activism. More importantly, we hope you are convinced that any one viewpoint is likely to have faults which prevent it from encompassing the whole truth.


(1) ______ . "Secondary School Principals: Up Against the Wall." Senior Scholastic: The Scholastic Teacher. April 11, 1969. pg. 4.
(2) Spurr, Stephen. "The Relative Roles of Faculty and Students in Decision-Making." Address to the Ninth Annual Meeting of the Council of Graduate Schools in the U.S. Washington, D.C. December 4-6, 1969.
(3) Barr, D. "Parents Guide to the Age of Revolt." McCalls, v. 97. October, 1969.
(4) Fink, Newton and Cullers, Benjamin. "Student Unrest: Structure of the Public Schools as a Major Factor?" The Clearinghouse, v. 44. March, 1970. pg. 415.
(5) Toole, K. Ross. "I'm Tired of the Tyranny of Spoiled Brats." The Reader's Digest. June, 1970. pg. 129.
(6) . "Student Protest: How Far is Too Far?" Senior Scholastic, v. 95. October 20, 1969. pg. 6.
(7) Silberman, Charles. "Murder in the Schoolroom." The Atlantic, v. 225, No. 6. June, 1970. pg. 96.


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