How much power should students have?

CALEB STEKL, Opinion Columnist

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Student power is a term rarely discussed since the student-worker revolts that raged across France in May 1968. The French students demanded democratic, student-run universities and better working conditions for the workers of France. What meaning, if any, can student power have in this epoch of disempowered unions, massive student debt and strained higher education funding? A student’s right to exert their democratic will does not extend beyond voting for the student government, whose own power is limited to commenting upon official university policy and budgetary decisions. We are not allowed to determine the future of our institution.

We must ask ourselves: what should student power be, and what can we achieve with it? If we, the students, had control of our education, we would not choose to indebt ourselves to the tune of $1.5 trillion collectively to receive a good education. We would not choose to shut down our pharmacy. We would not choose to defund our public transportation. We would not choose to cut faculty year by year or prevent our faculty from having strong bargaining rights. We would choose something different, something new, something humane. We would choose a system in which our workplaces at the dining centers, the library and the research centers pay us living wages. A system which provides its workers with universal healthcare and strong unions, which adequately funds our high schools and elementary schools, so we are fully prepared to enter higher education. The public university began with the idea that knowledge is not accessible only to those at the top, that all among us are capable of achieving great things. We can create anew the public university, we can redefine the idea of it, we can claim our rightful place as the future of society.

So how can we, the students and workers, achieve such a transformational change? The answer is simple: no historic, structural change can occur without millions of people standing up and saying, “Enough is enough, it’s our turn now.” Students have always been a driving force in social change. The aforementioned student-worker strikes of May ’68 are but one example. Let us never forget the brave souls of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee who drove buses to the deep South to expose the violent oppression and slaughter of people of color. We must remember our fallen brothers and sisters at Kent State, who were protesting the unjust war in Vietnam. And we must not only applaud but actively join the millions of students around the world fighting, protesting and walking out of class in the fight against the climate catastrophe that is beckoning.

We must apply the same logic of mass organization, coordination and commitment that our colleagues have in the past to our present struggles. This means extending our power beyond the university and into national politics. It does us little good to have student power at our university if our next President seeks to quash our movement. We must put someone in office who will protect, uplift, and secure our futures, someone who embraces student power and has actively participated in it. Student power and democracy are possible only by engaging in the universal struggle for who sits in the Oval Office.

There are a slew of candidates in the 2020 Democratic primary, each pitching themselves to students in their own way. If there is one word which signifies the 2020 Democratic race, it is “unity.”

Surely not all candidates mean the same thing when they say “unity,” though. We are certainly united against Donald Trump. But Donald Trump is not the true enemy of the working class, of students, of women and people of color. Our real, existential enemy is the system which allows someone like Jeff Bezos to be worth $124 billion while so many of us struggle simply to pay off our crushing loans. I, myself, am drowning under a mountain of $60,000 in student loans. This is what sets apart Bernie Sanders from his opposition. Senator Sanders recognizes the class struggle between those who own the wealth and those who create it. He has a long list of enemies on Wall Street, in corporate boardrooms, and of course the Republican Party. If we are to judge Senator Sanders by his enemies, then we students and workers are not so different from him. We, too, struggle against the banks, our bosses and the wealthy. It is time to elect someone who struggles with us, for us and alongside of us. It is time the students take what is rightfully ours. It’s time we, the students and working class, take power.

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