In the Tony award winning musical Les Miserables,
the student Enjolras leads his fellow students in two triumphal songs,
singing about how their planned uprising against the Parisian
government is "the music of a people who will not be slaves again" and
how "there is a life about to start, when tomorrow comes." The title of
the more well known one is "Do you hear the people sing" and its
general gist is something along the lines of "Students of the world
unite! You have nothing to lose but your books, desks and report cards!"
And yet, despite the colossal failure which Enjolras's rebellion turns out to be, one has little doubt that the character himself, if he were real, would be terribly embarrassed by the "protest" which occurred at the state capitol last week. According to the San Jose Mercury News, "students and staff members from colleges across the state marched from West Sacramento to the state Capitol on Monday morning, protesting budget cuts to community colleges and proposed fee increases at California's universities. Thousands arrived by the busload, wearing T-shirts representing their schools and carrying signs that read, 'We are the future.'"
Well, that's a relief, because they're certainly not the past. After all, this is the same state that was shocked by the free speech rallies at Berkeley, and by the rabid university anarchy which Ronald Reagan was partially elected to end. As Bob Dylan would say, "The times, they are a-changin'." Granted, the numbers attracted to this particular rally are minimally impressive, but the larger question of whether they actually accomplished anything is, sadly, left hanging.
The reason for this thousand-strong march was simple: Students at California's state and community colleges are not happy that they are the ones being hit by fee increases and spending cuts, which have reduced the number of courses offered while increasing tuition. One can hardly blame them, considering that the state spends 40 percent of its budget on education, and for that much money, they probably should be getting more. However, that problem would require a march on the local teachers' union, not Sacramento, which might be a harder sell. It's not nearly so easy to get in the news.
However, there is a tacit assumption inherent in the protestors' rhetoric which is worth criticizing, and that is the "we are the future" cliche which the Mercury News has reported. This is a common rhetorical refrain among students, but it may obscure something greater -- namely, the question of which of them really are the future, or will impact it.
This question has been treated at great length by
the educational scholar Charles Murray, who published an article recently defending the notion that too many people are going to college. However, according to Murray, "Saying 'too many people are going to college' is not the same as saying that the average student does not need to know about history, science, and great works of art, music, and literature. They do need to know-and to know more than they are currently learning. So let's teach it to them, but let's not wait for college to do it." College, Murray claims, should be for the really advanced things - the things one would talk about after learning the basics of our cultural heritage.
In a cash-strapped time like this, Murray's ideas have special relevance, since a renewed interest in secondary education would do two things -- firstly, it would target expectations so that the overdemand for college education might be adjusted downwards. After all, students who have trouble with the basics of American education are hardly qualified to enter a more advanced area. But secondly and more importantly, it would force a discussion of teachers' unions, since they tend to have exponentially more power in secondary schools, and as such, have more power to damage education there. As such, it's arguably a good thing that the discussion about whether college is essential could be forced by this bit of student zealotry.
Enjolras they ain't, but they might have a chance of unintentionally getting some real change talked about, rather than, to quote the musical again, "wetting themselves with blood."