I have taught a course called the History of American Higher Education for the past 8 years. It is my very favorite course to teach. Not only is it the course in which I feel most comfortable, but it typically has younger students – mainly master’s students – in it. I enjoy their spirit, their passion, and the world that sits out in front of them. During the course of the semester, I teach a section on student activism. I include a variety of perspectives on the history of the 1960s student protests, including those of conservatives, liberals, radicals and members of various racial and ethnic groups. I want students to see the protests from many sides.
I use the assigned readings and class discussion to talk about activism, protest, and civil disobedience both historically and in the current day. I ask students a lot of questions, such as “What is activism?” “Are today’s students activist?” and “Is violent protest ever necessary?” These questions elicit some interesting and passionate answers.
Given what is happening around the world (oppressed people rising up against their governments) and right here in the United States (pubic employees being stripped of their benefits and rights), this year’s discussion seemed more emotional. Students always have been passionate during these conversations but this year there was a more serious tone, especially around their individual rights to protest, question, and actualize the rights promised to them in the Constitution.
Within this context, I ask a question that is often difficult for people to answer: “For what issue or cause would you be willing to give up your current way or life?” I love this question as the answers always surprise me. One never knows what is deep inside people and this question brings out a commitment and a spontaneity that I admire. Not everyone answers nor do I expect them to, but for those who do and those listening, it’s a profound experience – at least that’s what students tell me.
I always hope that the passion of some of my students and the seriousness with which they speak exemplifies the spirit of those students who fought for individual and civil rights during the 1960s. I want history to come to life. This year the issues or causes for which students would give up their current way of life included their faith or lack of it, and their constitutional rights. In year’s past, issues have included the trafficking of women, child abuse and poverty.
When the students are done, I always share my own perspective. For me, the issue that I feel most strongly about is injustice. I have tried to fight against injustice of many kinds through my teaching, research and practice since becoming a professor. I do this through writing – both peer reviewed articles and more general writing – and through my actions both at Penn, within national organizations, and in my community. There have been many times when people have tried to talk me out of this commitment and have used various methods to pressure me. When this happens I think about the work that I do and how it should be about larger issues. This approach keeps me motivated.
The history class discussion ends with a conversation about the power of individuals to make positive change. Too often I think that we forget the power that we have to stand up for the injustice all around us and throughout the world. We feel helpless and that one person can’t make a difference. History teaches us otherwise, over and over again.
A professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Gasman is the author of “Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007) and lead editor of “Understanding Minority Serving Institutions” (SUNY Press, 2008).