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College Student Activism, or How to "Disguise Subversive Action like a Sugar-Coated Pill" (October 2017): Pre-20th Century Activism

By Robert V. Labaree

Pre-20th Century Activism

Stephen Nissenbaum’s collection of largely unannotated diaries, letters, sermons, church records, newspaper reports, and other selected items, published in The Great Awakening at Yale College, documents the first American college to be closed due to student unrest. However, it was not until the turn of the nineteenth century that widespread student revolts took place. Colonial era protests were primarily projected inward against overly restrictive, rule-driven college bureaucracies perceived to suppress student’s free speech rights, support inflexible curricula, impose stifling campus regulations, and maintain substandard living conditions. Any rebellions beyond the hallowed gates of campus during and immediately after the Colonial period were generally limited to anti-British protests and students participating in the postwar spirit of independence. Activism was not nationally organized into what could be considered a movement because the practical limits of transportation and communication undermined meaningful collaboration among students at different institutions. This early period of student activism is well-documented in Steven Novak’s book The Rights of Youth: American Colleges and Student Revolt, 1798–1815. This work stands as the only study to detail protests led by the Sons of the Founders generation—children born in the first decades after the Revolutionary War, whom Novak considers to be a “lost generation.” Novak carefully documents the first wave of student revolts that occurred at places such as William and Mary College, the University of North Carolina, and Princeton University. The study effectively places the rebellions within proper historical context and in relation to emerging trends in education. There is no equivalent survey of student unrest for the remaining decades of the nineteenth century, although Willis Rudy’s examination of student responses to five crucial periods of American history in The Campus and a Nation in Crisis: From the American Revolution to Vietnam should be consulted for a description of student unrest before and during the Civil War. Further mention of student protest events during the nineteenth century can be found in books covering the history of specific institutions of higher education.