What Does It Mean To Be a College Student? Reflections on Robin Kelly & Greta Thunberg

 By Abby Williams

Robin Kelley’s First Monday talk at Colorado College and student-activist Greta Thunberg’s address to the United Nations in New York occurred within a few hours of each other. This convergence of Kelley and Thunberg is entirely relevant to our community and is an opportunity to better understand what it means to be a student at CC at this moment.

Both Kelley, an acclaimed UCLA historian and community activism scholar, and Thunberg, a 16-year-old Swedish climate activist, identified student protest as a means to affect radical changes that exceed neoliberal institutions. Kelley spoke from the standpoint of someone who has experienced student protest and studies it, while Thunberg calls for it.

The idea of student protest at CC is interesting. I want to know what it could look like if it were to happen today, or next block, or next year. The way we can protest, and the way we would or will protest as CC students, reflect not only our collective values, but our relationship to the college and our understanding of what it means to be a college student.

The Colorado College official policy addressing protests and demonstrations states that participation in protest/demonstration cannot “disrupt the normal business or activities of the College.” It goes on to say that any event that is open to the public must be at the invitation of a department, office, program, or student organization. Additionally, the VP for Student Life and the Dean of Students both “reserve the right to impose restrictions, reschedule, relocate, or cancel speakers, activities, or events ….”

But what is a protest if it is delineated by a terms and conditions webpage? Any protest that is approved by CC is not a protest because it doesn’t shake the college. The reality is, CC doesn’t really want to change in a way that it cannot sanction. Any change outside of the vision of the administration would result in disassociation to a point where CC wouldn’t recognize itself as the same institution.

But maybe that’s the point.

This is where Kelley’s talk is especially salient. As a historian, he focused on the student protests of ’68, specifically the large-scale student walkouts in the University of California systems and the sustained administrative building occupations at Columbia University. These protests were not approved and they disrupted the functioning of the institution. Students protested en force without capitulating and were dedicated to noncompliance that could not be approved by an institution. They were students that put their academic, social, and professional futures — the source of their capital — on the line for change. Similar protest tactics were replicated last Friday, as thousands of students walked out during the Global Climate Strike, inspired by Thunberg.

It’s intriguing to think about what is keeping our campus from erupting into the same degree of protest described by Kelley. The same social problems are still pervasive and are now coupled with a time-sensitive climate crisis — we are in a precarious moment that should demand as much action as any other moment in history.

One barrier between many of us CC students and the idea of radical protest is the desire to continue some degree of compliance with the college to accumulate capital and to succeed by a set of institutionalized standard. It is not wrong to want to succeed in life and position yourself to do so, but this does not necessarily exceed the neoliberal bounds of the institution.

At its very worst, liberal protest get watered down to a group of people rubbing up against gradual reform in a way that makes them feel good. And at its best, it radically alters reality. Thunberg is telling us that radical action is required for a world that promises to be radically different in eight years, and Kelley is showing us how this action has worked before and how the mechanisms of this action can work again, outside of the sanctions of the institution.

The aim of this article isn’t to criticize the way CC students lead movements or have led movements and action in the past — I am proud of the changes that students have initiated in recent years and am appreciative of those working for change now. This article also isn’t an indictment of what I think is wrong: If you want to go into investment banking and not social justice, I. Don’t. Care. At least you are being upfront about your aims.

Neoliberalism, as Kelley framed it, is vague and dense. It is an ecology of the contradictions that we live in and to which we are so adjusted that we can’t easily recognize it or easily confront it. I am curious about how neoliberalism works to temper urgency, how it is padded by foundations, grant money, and buzzwords, and I am curious about the process of recognition.

So, the point is introspection. Not only are our next steps important, but also our foundation at CC, our roots as students in the college and what we expect back from the college (or at least from the institution name on the diploma) are pertinent.

Kelley and Thunberg brought up numerous points that should be discussed, and I look forward to hearing back from other students. I encourage all to take advantage of our independent student publication — The Catalyst — to voice and document your thoughts.

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