Ph.D. Octopus

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Weekend Debate: Where Do Activist Students Come From?

with 2 comments

by Luce

I’ve been afraid to post recently because almost anything I might write would probably come in the form of an anticipated general exam question (a month and a half away!) which would only serve to bore you and send me into a panic attack (also because I fear anything I write wouldn’t make half-sense, since my mind in the apt words of a friend looks like borscht soup at the moment). However I’ve been reading Habermas'”Technology and Science as ‘Ideology,'” an essay that appeared in German in 1968 in his Toward a Rational Society: Student Protest, Science, and Politics. The essay is dedicated to Herbert Marcuse (on his 70th! birthday — I’d forgotten how old he was 1968!)

It contains a passage that rings true today:

Activ[ist] students, who relatively frequently are in the social sciences and humanities, tend to be immune to technocratic consciousness because, although for varying motives, their primary experiences in their own intellectual work in neither case accord with the basic technocratic assumptions.

The technocratic consciousness being one that sees society as something to be controlled and improved by solving a series of technical problems, rather than as a normative order whose meaning and values are debatable. So basically technocratic consciousness doesn’t ask “ought” questions; it asks how we can fulfill what we want under the current system but doesn’t ask how we might potentially want to live our lives.

On reading the above quote my mind immediately went to various friends in humanities and socialsciences who support the NYU union and who have noted a disparity between support for the union in the humanities versus in the more ambivalent sciences. To a certain extent I’d chalked this up to scientists having a sweeter funding deal.

Students occupy Hamilton Hall at Columbia in 1968

I guess I was struck by the uncanniness of what Habermas said about 1968. Obviously I shouldn’t be so surprised– I myself have criticized the problem with universities’ increasing focus on the sciences and problem-solving, rather than on critical thinking, and have suggested some practical implications of this.

So here are the questions up for debate: is this a transhistorical phenomena? Did it begin with 1968 or with Weber’s disenchantment? Are we today just experiencing¬† a quantitative increase of a problem that began with ‘modernity’ itself? How connected are today’s student struggles to those of 1968?

[I ask the latter with genuine curiosity. I went to Columbia as an undergraduate and was always mildly annoyed by students who invoked the “1968” tradition–mostly because those students weren’t occupying buildings so I thought it a weak appropriation of the 1968 legacy– but perhaps I shouldn’t have so quickly dismissed the comparison.]


Written by Kristen Loveland

March 5, 2011 at 22:12

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. i think the issue here is that as you go back before the 1960s, although there certainly are students who fit this description, the revolutions they ended up supporting were very much of the *right*. this is not a heritage that Habermas or most of the Columbia ’68ers, for instance, are interested in taking up.

    more broadly, though, i think that even if there is a remarkable degree of institutional continuity from the late 1800s to today, the societies in which universities exist have changed radically. at least, it seems to me that in the more than 40 years since 68, the structural-economic, socio-political and geopolitical situations have completely changed. so…the same student radicalism wouldn’t mean the same thing any longer.


    March 5, 2011 at 23:50

  2. My first thought was that American student protesters in the late 1960s – and not just those at Columbia or Berkeley – had personal stakes in the protests, which centered on the increasing likelihood that they would be sent to Vietnam. I agree that students whose disciplinary homes focus on trying to understand, critique and change society would be more active compared to students whose disciplines encouraged them along a positivist, modernist path.

    A recent local GLBT referendum brought out many first-time student activists. The issue was of personal importance, and many have since said they were further motivated when their fellow students dismissed GLBT rights as unimportant or worse. I believe all of our new activists came from the humanities, social sciences (especially sociology) and education. I’d say Habermas is on to something, as usual.


    March 6, 2011 at 23:26

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