When the Students Go On Strike

by Anna Kellar:

I was listening to a lecture on the Cuban Revolution when the chanting started in the courtyard outside. A young man with dreadlocks and a bullhorn strode into the lecture hall at the University of Bologna in northern Italy. Within moments, the room had been taken over by more than a hundred student protesters.

The classroom takeover was part of student protests against the November 30, 2010 passage of the ™Gelmini reforms.∫ These reforms, a series of laws affecting kindergarten to the highest reaches of academia, consolidate universities, close departments, and reduce student presence in institutional decision-making. Italy faces a budget deficit, so the reforms are intended to make the public university system more efficient and competitive. Many students, however, say it leaves them with a weaker and more expensive education.

Students protest on Nov. 30, 2010 in Torino, Italy. (Edmund Yeo/Flickr Creative Commons)

In the days and months following the vote, high school students went on strike and took to the streets, while university protesters occupied landmarks like the Coliseum and the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Police clashed with protesters in Bologna, and increasing violence across the country left dozens injured. For me, these scenes were strange and unfamiliar, like flashbacks to my parents’ stories of Vietnam-era protests. In the ’60s and ’70s, American students occupied their universities just like their compatriots in Europe did. Why, I asked myself, does this seem so inconceivable today?

When I posed the question to my mother, she suggested that American students feel that politics don’t affect them in the same way as when the draft fueled protests against the Vietnam War. In America, there are a wide variety of options for higher education. In Italy, the lack of alternatives to the public university system might mean that students are willing to fight to preserve the status quo. Still, considering the level of political involvement at Yale, I’m convinced that apathy isn’t the reason for the absence of demonstrations.

Despite the passage of Gelmini, the Italian protests have increased in strength through December and January, in what many see as a broader outpouring of frustration at high youth unemployment and lack of opportunity after graduation. Decades of deep ideological divisions and political corruption have eroded Italians’ faith that the government is representing the voices of young people. ™We have to protest,∫ said my roommate Giulia Silvestrini, a third-year education major in Bologna. ™If we don’t, how would the government know that we don’t approve of what it’s doing?∫

However, it’s possible that protests might make the situation worse. Critics of Italy’s welfare state say that the trade-off between quality and equality is the reason that American universities rank better than Italian ones. The fight between entrenched interests makes it likely that if protests were successful in stopping Gelmini, the end result would be a stalemate and no reform at all.

That situation sounds familiar in an America still polarized by the culture wars of my parents’ generation. I think it’s healthy that students today are more interested in a practical, cooperative approach than in slogans and ideology. We are the generation that protests through Facebook and online petition because we believe in the power of communication.

Nonetheless, we should recognize that when our government disappoints us, sometimes more is required than an angry Facebook status. In Tunisia and Egypt, demonstrations by young people overthrew a dictatorship, and though Twitter and text messaging played a role, nothing replaced actually going out in the streets. Demonstrations don’t have to be antagonistic. What would the civil rights movement have been without sit-ins and the march on Washington? There are nearly 280,000 people in the “No to Prop 8” Facebook group; that’s wonderful, but it’s not enough.

The Internet is powerful, but nothing demonstrates commitment like a physical presence in the streets. American students today are not the radicals that some of our parents were, but that doesn’t mean we are not political. By looking to Italy, we can learn to walk the walk as well as talk the talk.

Anna Kellar ’12 is a Political Science major in Saybrook College. Contact her at anna.kellar@yale.edu.