Freedom's Web: Student Activism in an Age of Cultural Diversity

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To hear some folks tell it, the American Left these days is hopelessly fragmented. On one side, there's a younger student Left that's got its head up identity politics and single-issue crusades. On the other, there's an older labor Left that believes you ain't got a thing 'til the union boss sings.

Robert Rhoads

Reviewed by Aaron Shuman

Thursday, April 12 2001, 11:47 AM

To hear some folks tell it, the American Left these days is hopelessly fragmented. On one side, there's a younger student Left that's got its head up identity politics and single-issue crusades. On the other, there's an older labor Left that believes you ain't got a thing 'til the union boss sings. Now I don't happen to accept this characterization: either its drawing of sides, or the suggestion that they are irreconciliable. But in the wake of the cutting wars that marked the Left after the ascension of Dubya, I have to admit it at least holds sway in the pages of national publications, where the two sides regularly jostle back and forth. The laborati threaten to turn their hardhats loose, to knock some sense into the heads of those good-for-nothing students, with civics lessons on the merits of bureaucratic appointments in place of billy clubs. The students front with revolutionary cool or machismo or ardor, becoming the Action Jacksons of whichever set they admire. And between these sides are people like Robert A. Rhoads, whispering, "Can't we all just get along?" through one side of a clubbed face.

Robert Rhoads is a professor of educational administration at Michigan State. The titles of his previous books -- Coming Out in College, Community Service and Higher Learning, and Democracy, Multiculturalism, and the Community College -- prompt me to imagine him as a New Frontier liberal with a cabinet portfolio, which is good enough to earn a chuck on the shoulder from me.

In Freedom's Web, Rhoads attempts to survey the terrain of Left student activism in the 1990s, and the book is suffused with the can do spirit, motivated by the belief that if only people of good will could sit down around the big table and talk to one another, the world's problems would be solved. Promising more than it ultimately delivers, Rhoads's book nonetheless offers valuable insight into what he calls the 90s' Multicultural Students Movement. Implicitly, Freedom's Web lays the groundwork to challenge the periodization that claims the newest Left was born in Seattle, and in turn begs the question activists are increasingly asking, about the whiteness of organizations opposed to globalization.

The book's strength is its case studies of the Mills College student strike, the campaign for Chicano Studies at UCLA, the Internet activism of the Free Burma Coalition, and the struggles of Native American, African American, and gay students at Michigan State, Rutgers, and Penn State respectively. Rhoads not only attempts to cover the demographic and geographic bases but also chooses campaigns with a range of organizing strategies and success rates. While he isn't interested in drawing comparative conclusions or tactical lessons, his carefully detailed histories allow some to be drawn, and that will make the book worthwhile reading for any student activist worth his or her salt. (To reduce it to a sentence: once you've got your shit together, identify as many potential sectors of support as you can -- faculty, alumni, staff, off-campus organizations, etc. -- organize them before they mobilize against you.)

Also of value is Rhoads's opening chapter, summarizing the history of student activism in the context of its reforms of the academic environment. Arguing the "dfficult[y of] ascertaining an accurate gauge of the level of student involvement" in Left organizing, Rhoads uses social science surveys to note "the reality...that activist movements, including those of the 1960s, are almost always a minority phenomenon in that the vast majority of students tend to be largely uninterested."

There's enough qualifiers in that sentence to seesaw its meaning. Rhoads isn't a political scientist, and it isn't his game to ask why or when activism is a minority phenomenon, whether it should be, and what tethers self-styled vanguards to the majority will they preoccupy themselves with. Rather, Rhoads intends this as a reminder that the greatest fires start with a small spark, that each of us should take this little light of mine and let it shine, until 1000 points of light bring truth to the shadowy corners of Babylon, and God's will be done, amen.

Which gets to the book's weakness. The soft underbelly of Rhoads's argument, which the next four years of Dubya will poke raw, is the assumption that multiculturalism is inherently liberal. Rhoads notes neoconservative Nathan Glazer's 1997 screed We Are All Multiculturalists Now, but he doesn't seem to have thought out the implications of this claim. Freedom's Web is shaped, on the one hand, by a need to defend and translate multiculturalism to a hostile audience, one he presupposes will smile warmly on stories of students who only want the rights that others enjoy. Dig, for instance, his recap of a student contingent at 1993's march for lesbian, gay, and bisexual rights in Washington D.C.:

Sitting on the grassy lawn, several students relaxed hand in hand. Some leaned their heads on the shoulders of the persons next to them, while others took turns rubbing one another's backs. A few couples shared a kiss from time to time, while new romances bloomed like the cherry trees they had passed along the Potomac. For some, it was the first time they had displayed affection in public. No wonder so many of the Penn State contingent described their first day as empowering.

On the other hand, Freedom's Web is shaped by a need to apologize for the excesses of multiculturalism, which then go unspecified and unexamined. "If we can learn to stand the strains of passion," Rhoads writes, concluding his introduction to campus culture wars, "we might understand the pain underlying their expression.eel their pain, Rhoads says, and offers the solution:

"A serious commitment to multiculturalism may avoid some of the tension arising when minority students and women have to take issues of diversifying the campus environment into their own hands...Multicultural protesters should not be seen as the source of tension; a lack of institutional diversity is more likely the culprit."

In a previous generation, that would draw Rhoads the smackdown for paternalism. The "tension" Rhoads finds lamentable lies precisely in the gap between Nathan Glazer's bland assertion We Are All Multiculturalists Now and the lack of institutional diversity Rhoads is correct to cite here. But his unwillingness to examine this tension further decouples multiculturalism from any program of democratization and suggests that multiculturalism, like any other adminstrative matter, can and should be solved administratively, presumably with choice appointments, demonstration projects, and commissions whenever the unfortunate consequences of minorities having to take issues into their own hands break out. The problem is that the same speech could be delivered in a corporate management seminar, and these days, frequently is, in greater detail than Rhoads lays out here.

I get the feeling his subjects wouldn't appreciate this defense any more than they'd appreciate being told they are the descendants of the Students for a Democratic Society's call for participatory democracy. While that's an interesting suggestion -- whose continuities and historical relationships should be mapped out -- Rhoads doesn't see the need to make a case for it. Instead, he takes a thematically resonant concept, and perhaps his own personal sense of affiliation, and presumes this is historical fact, so ludicrously overstating the relationship as to suggest that Todd Gitlin, Tom Hayden, et. al., were bouncing Black Power babies on their knees while drafting the Port Huron Statement. Gitlin wouldn't claim that child, and no ghetto superstar I know is quoting Port Huron. Though the student organizations formed by multiculturalism forge intergenerational bonds, as Rhoads notes, they seek their heritage elsewhere, and the legacy of civil rights and ethnic studies activism -- to mention one trail -- receives scant mention while Rhoads gives the SDS repeated props.

Thus, Freedom's Web offers the exquisite martyrdom of moderation, as rich in detail for the critical reader as it is conceptually weak. It's unfortunate Rhoads focused his study exclusively on the university, since a look at lower levels of the educational system, as well as its periphery -- in charter schools, remedial schools, and home-schooling -- might yield interesting results that would deepen his understanding of the roots and trajectories of student activism. It's also understandable, since Rhoads ping-ponged across the United States, touching down wherever there was a televised image of student radicalism, to discern the zeitgeist in hot spots of multiculturalism. For every unargued assertion and patch of purple prose, there are points of interest that make the ride worthwhile.

Freedom's Web is available from Johns Hopkins University Press  

Copyright © 2001 by Aaron Shuman. All rights reserved.

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