The tradition of student protest at Dartmouth is one that has deep roots throughout the history of colleges and universities the world over, and often involves disparate movements that otherwise would have little in common. That is, with the exception of one thing: Students made their voices heard as a result of it. Now, in the modern day, when — thanks to social media — we can feel more disenchanted than ever before, it’s important to remember the history of student protests and their value as a part of campus life.
Like many colleges and universities, Dartmouth’s most recognizable student protests were launched in the 1960s, as a part of the growing wave of students that were more progressive than the faculties and administrations that surrounded them. One of the first highly publicized protests on Dartmouth’s campus was against a speech by third party segregationist presidential candidate George Wallace in 1967. During the event, protestors and supporters clashed, one side waving signs with pro-integration slogans, and the other waving the Confederate flag.
In another well-known case, in 1985, Dartmouth students protested apartheid in South Africa through the construction of shantytowns on the Green, forcing people to confront the conditions that Black South Africans were living under. Similarly, there was backlash to these protests as well, with a group of students attacking and destroying some of the structures before being apprehended by police. This month, allies of the Free Palestine movement have planted flags to demonstrate the sheer loss of human life under Israeli apartheid, while Sunrise Dartmouth members have sat watch over Parkhurst lawn in an attempt to keep their memorial from being removed.
These examples show the rich history of students vocalizing their demands through protest right here at Dartmouth, and putting their time and their bodies on the line for what they believe in. This is the immortal spirit of student protest, and is what makes it such an important part of being active on campus. It’s easy, in most cases, to tacitly voice support for something when there are no stakes. It’s also simple to put things out of your mind and ignore them. What’s difficult is to actually attempt to make change, and to accept that change may come at the expense of your personal comfort.
There are some big misconceptions around student protestors. Some have repeatedly argued that student protestors are simply complaining children seeking to rebel against older generations. To these people, student protestors find a cause and take it up as their own, and assume that nothing comes of protestors’ actions aside from their self-satisfied smugness. This is a misguided view of what student activism is actually about. In protesting for integration, the Dartmouth students of 1967 did not end racism, but they did end George Wallace’s speech. And, at the core of it all, they made clear what they would and would not tolerate.
In the construction of their shantytowns in 1985, activists similarly did not end apartheid, but they did get the College to divest, if only partially, from its holdings in South Africa, as well as a day off from classes so the student body could discuss the issues facing students of color and student protestors openly. One singular student protest may not change the world, but it may change the school. It gives voice to the feelings of the wider community. It makes a statement, and a statement is a powerful thing.
There is in some circles a misconception that states the antithesis of a student protest is a counterprotest. This is incorrect. The antithesis of a student protest is apathy. With the constant flow of depressing information thanks to 24/7 news coverage and social media, it’s no wonder that “compassion fatigue” has made it easier than ever to be apathetic. But apathy makes no statement and spurs no change, big or small. With more information at our fingertips than at any other time in human history, we must be willing to toss off the comfort of apathy and jump into the discomfort of action.
As tragedies at home and abroad continue, and as our world can seem more polarized and partisan, it is now more important than ever to return to our reliable old tools of getting things done. Whatever the cause, if you choose to move forward with activism, you join a long lineage of students before you who understood the importance of student action. In college, you are presented with a unique opportunity to change minds, to voice your opinions and to create real material change — no matter the scale. Participating in student activism is one of the last bastions of hope in the fight against apathy, and we’d all do well not to squander it.
Opinion articles represent the views of their author(s), which are not necessarily those of The Dartmouth.