Students important to election

I would like to respond to an objection that has surfaced in discussions about the override vote. The argument goes something like this: Williams students should not vote in favor of the Proposition 2 1/2 override because we do not pay (directly, at least) the property taxes which will finance it.

Last time I checked, the right to vote did not depend on whether one owned property. I must be mistaken about the requirements for participation in the political process in America: was it a “landed aristocracy” or a “democracy” that we were after? Under this logic, people like Donald Trump and other real estate investors should get more votes than any one else – or a vote at all. Oh yeah, and so should Williams College, since it, contrary to how some might describe the tax base, is the largest property taxpayer in Williamstown; its non-educated-related holdings are, in fact, taxed.

If we accept this argument – i.e., that one can vote only when one stands to lose money, that anyone whose pocketbooks are not threatened does not deserve a vote (a very negative view of politics, I must say) – then Williams’ substantial taxable properties render it a major player in community life. Williams, the argument goes, has every right to vote its moneyed interests. But who can represent the College in an election? That’s where we students – and the faculty and staff, who have shown overwhelming support for the override – come in. We can vote because we are part of a corporate entity that owns a lot of property and pays a lot of taxes. And since Williams pays so much – $310, 971 for FY 1998, to be exact – the more votes the better, right? (Of course, I’d prefer that we just vote as humble individuals and concerned citizens, but I’m trying to justify our position on the opposition’s grounds.)

In fairness to the other side, perhaps the issue is whether it is “appropriate” that students vote, rather than whether we have a “right” (which we do by law) to. Some students I have spoken to chose not to register in Williamstown because they do not feel enough a part of the community. Others simply feel a stronger allegiance to their hometowns, and believe it more appropriate to register there. I think these are legitimate viewpoints, and it certainly would not be right to demand that they become voters in Williamstown.

However, I disagree with the underlying assumption that those reasons apply to all students here. We should not be made out to be a constituency of mercenaries who have no legitimate connection or claims to the community. Many Williams students are actively involved in the community.

Over a hundred students work at the public schools or with Williamstown children in other capacities. [There are Big Sibs, Adventures in Learning instructors, America Reads and Writing Workshop tutors, science assistants, scout troop leaders, winter study students, volunteers, etc., etc.] And EVERY student knows a member of the faculty or staff at Williams whose children attend the local public schools. The notion that Williams students have no understanding of the issues at hand; that this issue will have no impact on us (as individuals, as members of the College community, as members of the Williamstown community); or that this is simply none of our business makes no sense to me.

The argument that it is not our place to meddle in the affairs of the Williamstown community relies on a false dichotomy between the College and the local community – it’s the old “town versus gown” mentality. It feeds off the notion that the College and its students are supposed to go about their business within the confines of the campus… and that it’s even possible to do so. It implies that we are supposed to feel like outsiders whenever we step into a building that is not owned and operated by the College, i.e., the various shops or restaurants we all have frequented. And that same argument supposedly applies to townspeople, when they attend concerts and lectures at Williams, audit classes or go walking, biking or sledding on the campus.

We do interact with the community (and our interaction is not limited to exchanging legal tender notes with townspeople for pizza or coffee). Our interaction is unavoidable – and in my opinion, a wonderful thing. Some of us do care about what happens beyond the rather ill-defined “borders” of the campus – if only because it is in our own interest to do so: a healthy community with a good school system means a good place for our professors and their families to live. And a good place for us to live. We do care, and we should care. As the beneficiaries of an excellent Williams education, it does not seem a far leap to fight for quality education for others.

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