Thursday, April 12, 2007

How to Deal With Student Protesters

The University of Southern California is one of the most expensive schools in the country, but when you go there you find that sometimes the best education is free:

Students staged a sit-in Tuesday outside the office of USC's president, hoping the university would take measures to ensure that USC-themed apparel isn't manufactured in sweatshops.

Thirteen students, who came prepared with food to last three days and pillows, ended their protest after about six hours when the university threatened to suspend them and, in a move that even surprised former 1960s student activist Tom Hayden, called their parents.

"We were prepared for arrest, but not suspension," said Ana Valderrama, a senior in philosophy.

I have never understood the high moral authority attached to college students and their protests. It makes little sense economically. It is probably true that college students have more idealism, but that is simply a function of being younger and less understanding of how the world works. One could also argue that their greater amounts of free time than the average working adult gives them more opportunity to research the issues that generate their disturbances, so that they are more knowledgeable. Unfortunately, since they do most of this learning in the seriously problematic classrooms of the modern American university, I don’t anticipate that their campaigns will be any more well-informed than the stock-picking habits of someone who does all his market research by consulting his spam folder. And in any event, the fact that for college students time is copious cuts both ways: when time is plentiful its opportunity cost is cheap, meaning that people will protest over relatively unimportant things. So ignorance about reality and the importance of the particular slice of it that exercises them are problems that plague any student movement.

In fact, knowledge is a stock of capital that we expect older people to possess more of, other things equal, than younger people because they have been investing in it for longer. They should know more about the world and its frailties than the young, at least until the point that theor cognitive faculties begin to meaningfully depreciate. In this conception, people in their mid-50s, still active out in the world and with their minds fully intact, are the wisest people in the world. Indeed, one of the premises of a university is that students are there to get knowledge they don’t currently have.

And so it simply boggles the mind that college protesters, particularly the disruptive ones, are lent such respect by the broader society. Even when they act through threats of social chaos rather than through persuasion (as in the late 1960s), their leverage is limited, as USC's response demonstrates. Protest too much and you have to leave school and get a job. And so the attention and deference college protesters receive, combined with their seeming greater effectiveness in Europe (especially France, where student protests in 1968 substantially remade the country while protests in 2005 actually forestalled desperately needed economic reform) are mysteries I am unable to explain.

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Blogger Joshua said...

Of course, the really interesting question is whether USC would have done the same thing with students who were protesting, say, the war in Iraq. Or gay marriage. Or bans on gay marriage. Or the encroachment of shari'a law in Western societies. Or for that matter, ham-handed university policies against speech and protests.

I'd like to think this is more than just an amusing, yet isolated, "man bites dog" story, but I see no evidence of that.

12:09 AM  
Blogger Ren said...

I think its great that students are protesting on campus for a specific policy change (joining the Designated Suppliers Program) that specifically affects students and campus. Isn't that better than the general hodgepodge of ANSWER 'coalition' montages?

The students are addressing a targeted human rights issue that their university, of which they are tuition paying constituents, can take a direct step to help.

PS. The protests against "ham-handed university policies against speech and protests" happened other days, don't worry.

1:25 PM  
Blogger Evan said...

Joshua, your point is well-taken. It certainly could be that USC will clamp down exclusively on protests that threaten USC's bottom line.

Ren, your comments about a "targeted human rights issue" strike me as misplaced. Those factories are the only shot at prosperity - not today, but a generation from now - their workers have. I urge you to consult Johan Norberg for some first-hand insight about what these plants are about.

As the economist Thomas Sowell likes to say, the solution to poverty is prosperity.

3:28 PM  
Blogger Ren said...

The program that the students want USC to adopt would not abandon Nike. That company owns some factories that have safe, fair working conditions... and some that do not, that engage in verbal and sexual abuse, forced unpaid overtime, etc. The Designated Suppliers Program would be a request from the University (the customer) to Nike (the provider) that Trojan apparel be made in the factories that are up to ethical standards. Nike still profits, USC still profits, workers still profit, and as this grows past the current 167 schools plus the city of Los Angeles, more factories will move towards ethical conditions to meet the demand.

8:09 PM  

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