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College Student Activism, or How to "Disguise Subversive Action like a Sugar-Coated Pill" (October 2017): Home

By Robert V. Labaree


This bibliographic essay originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of Choice (volume 55 | number 2). 


College student-led protests, rallies, strikes, rebellions, mass marches, sit-ins, walk-outs, acts of civil disobedience, and, yes, even the occasional riot, have occurred throughout the history of American higher education. The rough contour of student unrest is characterized by alternating ridges and valleys that reflect increasing or decreasing periods of collective engagement. It should come as no surprise that the lowest valley in modern history was from the 1940s to the mid-1950s, when millions of young people were engaged in fighting overseas during World War II and the Korean War, and radical student politics generally failed to gain traction under the Red Scare of McCarthyism. The highest peaks of activism occurred during the national student strike for peace in the 1930s and the civil rights and anti–Vietnam War student movements of the 1960s and early 1970s. In addition to confronting problems in society, these high and low points also reflected student unrest projected inward against institutions of higher education. Students have often rebelled against what they consider entrenched rule-making structures created by impersonal bureaucracies that, among other things, suppressed free speech rights, undermined educational opportunities, and exploited students as raw material in an increasingly corporatized culture of market-driven, academic decision-making. Whether it is unrest projected outward or inward, however, college student activism has always been an inspirational force of social change and institutional critique within the larger society.

The publication of research on college student activism has roughly paralleled these historical contours of unrest and relative calm. Based on the monographic and periodical studies produced, an argument can be made that the level of engagement in the 1930s and 1960s may be rivaled in intensity and scope by the new student activism of the 21st century, initiated and sustained in many ways by the advent of cyberactivism, hashtag protests, and the social networking of dissent—most recently energized by the hyper-partisanship and severe polarization that permeates all levels of political discourse. Today, college students participate in immigrant-rights demonstrations and protest vocally to achieve an end to systemic racism and acts of bigotry on campus. They have organized into groups like Strike Debt, Rolling Jubilee, and the Debt Collective to protest the growing inequalities in access to education created by rapidly rising tuition costs and the burden of long-term debt. Students have marched, conducted sit-ins, and occupied buildings to express anger over speakers brought to campus who express what they consider provocative hate speech, selectively challenging, ironically, their own embrace of freedom of expression. In other cases, often a nation-wide protest movement has erupted from a singular act of defiance. For her senior thesis in visual arts at Columbia University, for example, a victim of rape carried a dorm mattress wherever she went to protest the fact that her rapist was not expelled from school, initiating “Carry That Weight” demonstrations at more than 130 college campuses demanding that administrators confront the mishandling and suppression of sexual-assault cases.

This bibliographic essay focuses on monograph literature that examines college student activism in the US. Content is arranged under general historical time periods, although many studies overlap in their coverage of events; a separate section is devoted to general historical surveys. Selected digital archive collections are also included because they provide access to important primary-source materials about specific movements or protest events and the people behind them. There is also a substantial volume of scholarly journal literature devoted to examining college student activism, particularly the impact and legacy of the New Left student movement of the 1960s and contemporary student protest events. These articles are published by scholars primarily in the fields of education, ethnic studies, history, political science, psychology, and sociology. Many of these sources are listed among the references and further readings of the books described herein, or they can be accessed from multidisciplinary and discipline-specific databases available in most academic and large public libraries.

Robert V. Labaree, Ed.D., is international relations/political science librarian at the Von KleinSmid Center Library for International and Public Affairs, University of Southern California.