Revolution #245, September 4, 2011

Talking to students about what's on their minds

Yearnings and New Shoots, Deep Concerns and Humanity

We received the following correspondence:

Dear Revolution,

Taking up the plan to shake up and wake up the campus, a team of us spent several days at an elite private university that has a conservative reputation, distributing the special issue on BAsics, selling the book BAsics, and using suggestions in the editorials about how to shake things up. We have been on this campus in the past to talk to professors, but we have never gone there to engage the students.

Our crew got out 4,000 of the BAsics special issue of Revolution newspaper, sold 13 BAsics, got 75 e-subs to Revolution newspaper, and raised $100.

In engaging with students at the table, meeting with professors, and doing "social investigation"—i.e. talking to students about what's on their minds—we learned some of what students are thinking about, some of their concerns and the contradictoriness of how they see the world, and more of what life is like on campus.

Many people stopped at the table to find out more of what this is about, and a small number of those kind of "jumped out" in terms of their deep appreciation for us being there. These students (and faculty) characterized the climate on campus as one where the dominant voice seems to range from being closed-minded to being, as one young woman teaching assistant put it, "(right-wing) frothing motherf…ers." In one instance there was a heated exchange with one of these "frothing" people, and a woman passing by who was listening stopped and bought BAsics, very happy that this Dark Ages mentality was being challenged.

A couple of professors took copies of the special issue to distribute to the students in their classes, and one of those professors took issues to give to other professors in their department to hand out to students in their classes. Several professors bought BAsics.

As we talked with people, one thing that started to emerge is that even if the loudest voices on campus are the backward ones, there are many, many students who have deep concerns about what is going on in society and what is happening to people other than themselves. While this includes some positive political stirrings on campus—like protests against violence against women or against Israel's occupation of Palestine—most of the students we talked with don't consider themselves "political" and don't conceive of their concerns as political, and mainly they are not paying attention to things going on in other parts of the world. In many cases, students are trying to find ways to do something meaningful about the things they're concerned about, but almost none of them are considering fundamental change—only the options that present themselves within how capitalism works.

Some people are concerned about poverty and/or the economic crisis and talked specifically about the disparities in opportunity for those on the bottom of society and those from privileged backgrounds. Some are concerned about the objectification of and violence against women, like a woman who grew up in an oppressed neighborhood and said she decided on a business major so she could start a foundation for battered women. Some people were disturbed about what is going on among college students. One student began the conversation saying she's concerned that everybody is walking around in their own bubbles, not paying attention to what is going on in the world or even each other. She also said that with Facebook and texting, people don't even talk to each other.

Other students talked about different projects they have taken up or interests they are pursuing. An Iraqi film student did a documentary about Iraqi refugees in the U.S. An architecture student is dedicating himself to developing sustainable agriculture in urban spaces. In getting deeper with these students about fundamental change, and in particular revolution and communism, they were attracted to the actual goals of communism in contrast to the capitalist credo of profit-above-all and everything turned into commodities, but rejected out-of-hand "communism" as a viable answer for humanity, conceiving of socialism as really a capitalist social-welfare state—which they saw as more acceptable. When it came to revolution, this was not a legitimate solution to these students. One in particular articulated that whatever change anyone tries to bring about, it is only legitimate if it is done peacefully and through popular vote—and went on to say that ideally, you could start with a vacuum in terms of economic systems and then take a vote and establish whatever system the popular vote calls for.

We found this kind of thinking and these questions were very common when people stopped to discuss the special issue on BAsics: questions and disagreements in terms of violence, leadership, morality, a viable alternative. Change on the level of the individual or the family, or social work and small reforms, were the most common views of the kind of change that is possible. A professor who decided to buy BAsics and was thinking about how to use it in class reflected, "We don't teach this kind of sweeping change. There's a hegemonic capitalist ethos on campus," and went on to start examining his own thinking and what he is teaching in that regard.

The quotes from BAsics starting to get in the mix of people's thinking was something new and refreshing, controversial and intriguing. A woman who had left France because of the intensity of the oppression of Black people there, ended up moving to Atlanta where she found things were worse—in a climate of racism and anti-immigrant laws and propaganda. When she opened BAsics and landed on quote 1:14 about why do people come here from all over the world, she was so thrilled she got on her cell phone and told a friend they had to come to this table. University faculty came to the table after seeing quote 5:14 scotch-taped in bathroom stalls, "Religion is the doctrine of submission—blind obedience; Marxism of rebellion—ever more conscious rebellion," leaving with multiple copies of the special issue to help get out to students. Some students were shown the essay on reform or revolution, but were not quite ready to engage it. Quote 4:13 about how there is not one human nature, was chalked in big letters on a busy walkway and many students stopped to read it, sometimes groups of them gathering up.

Many students said there don't tend to be discussions of larger ideas or even what's going on in the world or in the news—and they appreciated the times when it does happen, mainly in class, sometimes in the apartments where people live. Some described feeling stifled, and a professor of critical thinking said that people don't challenge things. The characterization of students in "bubbles" separated off from the world and each other is something that came up repeatedly.

It is actually the other side of that contradiction that stood out the most about what is going on with these students: the desire for human connection. The humanity of what they are thinking about and care about. Whether it's the one person saying she wants to be able to have conversations with people that's not just texting, or the guy doing the documentary on Iraqi refugees who feels it is a story that needs to be told, or the public policy major who described feeling welcomed on campus by what is promoted there as being part of the "family" of students and faculty, or the social work student who really liked her "community immersion" assignment—going to an oppressed neighborhood and walking around asking people what they think. I think this is something our work on campus has to give expression to and we should find the various ways to give expression to that.

An email a friend got from a student in another city also illustrated something important about the yearnings of these students and positive new shoots. He described the founding of an organization on his campus in response to a leaked school administration document that called for a "for-profit" model of education, that said "humanities, fine arts philosophy, and literature" are "esoteric" (and essentially worthless) and said students are "human capital." The student went on to explain that the organization is part of an overall "positive project of forming a less individualist more socially conscious movement."

These yearnings and new shoots, deep concerns and humanity, are not yet part of the movement for revolution but are truly fertile ground for what is quoted from Bob Avakian in BAsics 3:24:

"A genuinely radical, liberating revolt—as opposed to a reactionary 'rebranding' and celebration of parasitism—must be fostered among the youth in today's conditions, a revolt within which the need is powerfully raised for a new society and a new world, which will move to eliminate the urban/suburban contradiction, and antagonism, in the context of the transformation of society, and the world, overall and the abolition of profound inequalities and divisions—opposing, overcoming and moving beyond the parasitism which is such an integral and indispensable part of the operation and dynamics of imperialism, and has reached such unprecedented heights in 'late imperial America.' In short, we need, in today's circumstances, a counter-culture that contributes to and is increasingly part of building a movement for revolution—in opposition to a counter-revolutionary culture. We need a culture of radical opposition to the essence of everything that is wrong with this society and system, and the many different manifestations of that; we need an active searching for a radically better world, within which revolution and communism is a powerful and continually growing pole of attraction."


A reader

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