But in the midst of Shirley’s call to Occupy, there was a spirit of something more active. Service is not the doings of a deep Firestone-dweller but of one who can “take this University by storm, make it uniquely your own, and leave it better than you found it.” Her words mark a push from diligent service to vigorous activism. This notion touches on a sore point for Princeton: our community is reputed to be antithetical to change and apathetic to activism.
Academic institutions, particularly undergraduate universities, are historically known worldwide as hotbeds for political activism. In this country, the Vietnam War student demonstrations are clearly woven deep into the American cultural consciousness. Abroad, the cultural bases of entire national identities were founded on student movements, from the May 4 Movement in China to the Orange Revolution in Ukraine.
In this context, Princeton has a reputation for quite the opposite. Mudd Library records show that a majority of Princeton students were in favor of involvement in the Vietnam War in October 1967. Opposition took the upper hand only after graduate student deferments for the draft were limited. Princeton students eventually marched in Vietnam War demonstrations with the self-conscious slogan “EVEN PRINCETON.” It seems strange that a university that prides itself on service should have such an apathetic reputation.
The most common argument is that Princeton is a bastion of the establishment, and those set to seek employment in the establishment would not busy themselves with challenging it. Indeed, it is not uncommon for Princeton students to fear that innocuous political engagement (even a Facebook post) will haunt an otherwise successful job interview. However, if we grant ourselves a rare moment to look outward, I know from friends across the pond that political activism and employability are not as closely linked as we often claim. The London School of Economics even rivals the more theoretical-based Oxbridge in terms of employability, but the students do not act the part of the perfect i-banker they are set to become while in attendance. At graduation, many trade their Marxist red for a Citibank blue without qualm.
While misdirected radicalism errs on the ludicrous side, the stirrings of change and dissent reflect a healthy academic body. The entire purpose of attending an academic institution is to contribute to academic discourse by challenging the existing assumptions. If “entering the academic discussion” of Writing Seminar is as boring as it sounds, it is unsurprising that university students everywhere have conceived their greatest ideas in idealistic fervor amid discussions with peers, not necessarily in the classroom. College is a time of freedom for academic experimentation with few repercussions on future prospects.
If any place takes excesses in academic freedoms, it is Greece. With free education, some of my friends’ four years of freedom often become six or seven years of irresponsibility. Universities are ripe with hotly contentious political organizations that starkly divide the student body. According to these friends, some Greek professors grade papers based more on common political affiliation than merit.
Greece is a country intent on political impasse through and through. A friend of mine’s 10-year-old brother recounted the strike of bubble gum flavors offered at his school’s cafeteria. Banana is apparently so disgusting it warrants staying home from school. When I asked him if it was irresponsible to strike over sugared rubber, he piped up, “Now we need the permission of one teacher before we strike again.” Very stringent. “Kids in America,” he added, “don’t even have bubble gum at school. We are fortunate.” He whispered sheepishly of larger, week-long strikes in neighboring counties that made him giddy. It may be impressive — and kind of cute — that 10-year-olds can act with such pride and coordination, but a cultural affinity to striking whimsically as a primary means of political engagement has stalled necessary structural reforms to save Greece and threatens to bring Europe down with it. Constructive political engagement does require some level of sobriety and responsibility.
I’m not advocating that Princeton students bar the doors to Nassau Hall over one-ply toilet paper, but we could engage in more meaningful, outward-looking discourse and fulfill an intellectual obligation to challenge and contribute. As former University President Robert Goheen said, “Only through disturbance comes growth.” These short four years are our greatest opportunity to take intellectual risks and innovate. We ought to treat them that way.
William Beacom is a sophomore from Calgary, Canada. He can be reached at email@example.com.