The iconic image of a young man in a white shirt defying an army tank in Tiananmen Square went ‘global’ long before social media existed and is etched into the minds of millions. He was the embodiment of protest; and hundreds if not thousands of his colleagues died in Beijing during that protest in 1989.
In Australia we had Albert Langer from Monash University fomenting protest against the Vietnam War. He was prepared to go to jail for his beliefs and for years he was the face of protest in this country. Protesting the same war, four students at Kent University in Ohio gave their life for the cause. In Orangeburg, South Carolina three students protesting for civil rights were killed for their beliefs.
And so it has been. Students across the world – USA, UK, Europe, Malaysia, China, South Korea and many more have led protests and have been prepared to die for their beliefs. They made a difference. Protests ended American and Australian involvement in the Vietnam War. Protest – again often initiated by students - brought massive improvements to the lives of America’s blacks.
Massive social change came about in France through student protest late last century and going further back, protest led to the French Revolution in 1848.
Throughout the ages it seems when people protest, changes can follow and often do. Without protest, the status quo remains. The insidious may not be exposed and social wrongs not righted.
Protest was the domain of university students for several reasons. They were young and their minds fully into enquiry combined with a thirst for knowledge and expression. They were passionate in their beliefs which hadn’t yet been blunted and dented by time. They generally had a strong social conscience and truly cared about their fellow man. They lived in a learning environment which encouraged critical thought and debate.
Or at least it used to encourage critical thought and debate but we have dumbed that down. The beginning of this downward spiral came with the introduction of fees for university education. Students found themselves in debt for their education and no longer had the luxury of spare time to think, to connect and to debate, instead studying hard to get a job to pay for the debt their education incurred. It was a vicious cycle which took away the student collective concept. Over a relatively short time universities were full of individuals with little time for each other and thus little time for the fomenting of ideas.
We have also seen a general falling in our education standards, Australia slipping to 28th for year four maths and 25th for year four science since 2011.
It seems apparent that the teaching fraternity, from primary, through secondary to tertiary is much more focused on social politics than on education than it should be and this is developing a student class with different values to their predecessors. It is not just education that defines the current student body as different of course, but education is a critical factor.
We are not equipping our students educationally as well as we did and also we are effectively denying them space they once had to think and develop and it is hard to find anything positive in this.
Our educationalists have created ‘safe spaces’ for students to go if what they hear may offend them. Here is just one example.
A visitor to Brown University in the US was coming to give a lecture and a ‘safe space’ was established to give students and others who might find her comments troubling, a place to recuperate. The room was equipped with cookies, colouring books, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies and students and teachers to assist with counselling. Entire dormitories have been determined ‘safe spaces’ even college newspapers and ‘safe space’ simply means discussion is off the table, let alone any debate. This development is not confined to America of course.
So, my question is; does today’s student body have the wherewithal for critical thinking and I suspect they don’t. And if they don’t where will the winds of change blow from if not from a passionate student body?
We are currently in a world where a dark-ages religion based, on ignorance and hatred is trying to engulf the rest of the world and many people in all societies and all levels of society can’t or won’t see the threat this poses.
Thirty years ago this topic would have been hotly debated at university and college campuses, opinions formed and actions developed. Students would have been extremely active in analysing the situation and bringing it squarely into the public space for discussion and debate. It frightens me that this is not happening because traditionally students have been at the forefront of fresh thought and often brought the rest of society along with them. They were a vanguard for change. Such change doesn’t come about by hiding under a blanket eating cookies in a safe place and sipping warm milk.
Although never personally a protestor, I respect the value student protest can bring to democracy and the difference it has made and I know we are a lesser and more vulnerable society for effectively eliminating it.
I don’t know if the brave young man who took on the tank in Tiananmen Square was steamrollered that day, but I do know that with the absence of a critical student body it will be easier for anyone or anything to steamroll your world and mine.
Trevor Colvin studied communications at RMIT while working in the advertising industry and later 'The Age' where he developed into number of senior roles including a five-year stint in Asia publishing magazines and the first national English-language daily newspaper in China. Colvin left the corporate life and over time began three separate and diverse businesses. In the past three years he has taken on a new role as movie producer and is enjoying the challenge and the steep learning curve.