Do you Hear the People Mutter?

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.'”

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.”