What Would it Take?
I am writing this post on an airplane flying back across the Atlantic from a wonderful 10 day vacation with my wife, Betsy Barefoot. We have been in France precisely because it is the “Old Europe” at its best, just what Donald Rumsfeld so despised. But it is also a country well known for its propensity for wild cat strikes, protests and civil disobedience. And we certainly picked a good week to be reminded of this long tradition. And this was the first October vacation I have ever taken since becoming an academic 44 years ago.
Ah, the spirit of the French Revolution lives on, especially in the young people, university students, who despair of losing the French way of life: the 35 hour work week, an enormous number of paid holidays, and full retirement benefits at age 60. France’s Prime Minister has caused a firestorm by requesting the National Assembly to approve legislation raising that retirement age to 62 and this has unleashed a tumult of strikes and protests. While we were there last week, a serious fuel shortage developed disrupting air service, road travel, and other unions launched a devastating series of rolling strikes of the railroads. To put it mildly, daily life became totally unpredictable. But this set me wondering.
First of all, there’s a warning here for any American politician who would drastically meddle with the people’s entitlements!
But what about American university students? What would send them into the streets opposing something? It has long appeared to me that they will put up with just about anything. At least they Tea Partyers are out protesting. Sure, we do have student activists in our country, but they strike me as a passive lot compared to what I just observed during my visit in France. What could possibly get them stirred up?
Not the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. Not the President’s proposed plan to eliminate the Bush era tax cuts for the wealthiest of taxpayers. Not the Obama administration’s clamp down on proprietary schools which educate about 10% of our students but absorb about 25% of our federal financial aid budget. Not the Republicans’ blockage of any more stimulus money which might jolt the economy back to life and provide some jobs for recent college graduates. Not any of the many state and local actions being taken to restrict illegal immigrants, all in the absence of federal policy. Not the Administration’s new health care legislation which will ultimately mandate current students after college and age 26 to purchase health insurance. Just what will it take?
I remember what it took: the draft. How I long for the return of the draft. I would love to see the students out in the streets again. I would love to see the children of our Congressional leaders subject to the draft. But that’s a pipe dream, John. Our students have been co-opted. They’ve bought in.
I am definitely concerned about the level of anger I see in my fellow citizens; and it dismays me. Some of it I feel is entirely justified. But I don’t see much of it in our students. What would so anger them that they would be moved to action?
So I return to the question. What will it take? I don’t know. I just don’t know.