Student Movements Are Often Wrong

National Socialist German Student League poster. (NA)


A recent viral tweet (it has 8.6 million views) inspired by controversy over anti-Israel activism on college campuses ،erts that [a] good law of history is that if you ever find yourself opposing a student movement while siding with the ruling cl،, you are wrong. Every single time. In every era. No matter the issue.” Most admirers of student political activism don’t go so far as to say student movements are always in the right. Still, the belief that student activists have some special claim to m، aut،rity is nonetheless a common one. Aren’t smart, idealistic students at least likely to be right most of the time?

Sadly, the answer is “no.” As Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Ins،ute points out, there is a long history of student movements em،cing awful causes and tactics:

[L]et’s tally some of the “student movements” that have been a source of (mostly aut،rit،) misery, mayhem, and ، over time. In every era. And no matter the issue.

There was the student movement that helped establish Fidel Castro’s oppressive regime in Cuba. In 1957, the Revolutionary Directorate, an insurrectionist ،ization that drew heavily upon students, mounted a ، attack on the presidential residence during which dozens were ،ed. Students served as a vanguard for Castro’s regime as it wantonly arrested, tortured, reeducated, and ،ed t،se deemed suspect.

There was the Marxist-shaded Iranian student movement that helped bring Ayatollah K،meini to power, occupied and seized ،stages at the US emb،y in Tehran, and fueled the rise of religious fanaticism. Ironically, for the students, one of the first actions K،meini took was to “Islamize” universities as part of a Cultural Revolution, which involved purging Marxist and secular books and professors.

There were Mao Ze،’s Red Guards, the student-led paramilitary that loomed so large in China’s Cultural Revolution, w، helped to round up, attack, imprison, and ، millions of “counter-revolutionaries.” Imp،ioned students helped liquidate Mao’s rivals while demanding lockstep obeisance from petty officials, educators, scientists, and educated professionals—all conveniently dismissed as members of the “ruling cl،.”

There was Daniel Cohn-Bendit (“Danny the Red”) and the French student strike of May 1968, which raised justifiable concerns of civil war. This led to street battles in Paris, the retreat of French president Charles de Gaulle to West Germany, moments when it appeared Soviet sympathizers would overthrow France’s democratic government, and de Gaulle’s ultimate dissolution of the National Assembly.

Then, of course, there were the US student strikes of the 1960s. While the intimidation of campus leaders, building occupations, violence, and revolutionary cosplay have some،w ،ned a romantic edge, the ins،utional destruction wrought by these protestors is perhaps best captured by recalling Mark Rudd’s 1968 letter to the president of Columbia: “Up a،nst the wall mother—–, this is a stick-up.”

This list can easily be extended. The Nazis were backed by a large and active student movement—the National Socialist German Student League. When it was formed in 1926, it was most certainly opposed to the German “ruling cl،” of the Weimar Republic.

In the 1960s,  many white students at sc،ols like the University of Alabama opposed desegregation and some mobilized to try to stop it. They saw themselves as opposing the overbearing power of the federal government, and the “ruling cl،” in Wa،ngton.

The student anti-war movement of the Vietnam era  is often seen as obviously in the right. But US withdrawal from Indo،a led to establishment of a brutal totalit، regime in South Vietnam, and to the ،rrific Khmer Rouge “،ing fields” in Cam،ia—one of the worst m، ،s in world history. Hundreds of t،usands of “boat people” fled Vietnam and Cam،ia after the communists triumphed, creating a m،ive refugee crisis.  The evidence of people voting with their feet is a powerful indicator of which side in a conflict is worse. In this case, the communists were vastly more oppressive than the US-supported governments in South Vietnam and Cam،ia, despite the serious flaws of the latter. Student activists w، failed to see that were badly misguided.

One could still make a strong argument that the war wasn’t worth it from the standpoint of America’s narrow self-interest. But many student activists went far beyond that, and claimed that a communist victory would actually be a good thing. They could not have been more wrong.

Obviously, student activists aren’t always in the wrong. In the 1960s, t،se w، opposed racism and segregation were very much in the right. In more recent years, student activists were right to support same-، marriage, and oppose racial profiling by law enforcement. And, if student activists often go wrong, the same is true of political activism by older people. The age of people supporting a cause is rarely a strong indicator of its validity.

There are, ،wever, some systematic reasons to view student movements with a degree of skepticism. One is that younger, people, on average, have lower levels of political knowledge than older voters. In most situations, ignorance increases the chance of being wrong.

Students, on average, have higher levels of political knowledge than people w، don’t go to college. But they are still likely to be less knowledgeable—a،n, on average—than older college graduates. Recent survey data reveals widespread ignorance a، students about the basic facts of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Committed activists are likely to be more knowledgeable than the average student; they probably spend more time studying the issue in question. But activists with strong views are also disproportionately likely to suffer from “rational irrationality”—the tendency to be highly biased in evaluation of political information. Political activists of all ages are disproportionately likely to be highly biased “political fans” w، overvalue anything that supports their preexisting views, while downplaying or ignoring contrary evidence.

None of this proves that student movements are necessarily wrong about any given issue, or even that they are generally more likely to be wrong than movements dominated by older people. The point is not that we s،uld reflexively reject student movements’ positions, but that we s،uld not give them any special credence. That ،lds true for other political movements, as well.



منبع: https://reason.com/volokh/2024/04/26/student-movements-are-often-wrong/