Occupational hazards: Questioning the need for institutionally-supported activism

In an editorial of Nov. 9, the Record declared it “lamentable” that students seeking to demonstrate against a proposed oil pipeline were forced to assume the responsibilities of fundraising and making logistical arrangements (“Developing a plan,” Nov. 9). Taking issue with the claim that “it is incumbent upon the administration to make resources and funding” available to would-be activists, I write to dispute the implication that the College should work to make this sort of political activism an easy and painless undertaking.

As the Record noted, Williams is a “predominantly left-leaning” community. However, one of the many reasons I find the Purple Valley an immensely appealing place to live and learn is because its political discourse is less polarizing than that of many other small liberal arts colleges, where a predilection for adrenaline-fueled activism and simplistic demonstrations threatens to diminish opportunities for productive conversation. As an Eph who does not generally lean left, I place enormous value on the open-minded, thoughtful exchanges that occur both in and out of our classrooms. Rather than “unequivocally applaud” a shift towards marching and sloganeering, as did the Record, I contend that a 100-student forum or debate about American energy policy would be far more salutary than a 100-student off-campus jaunt to join a chanting crowd in the proverbial echo chamber. In the former situation, students’ pre-conceived opinions are challenged in a thoughtful way; in the latter, they are merely reinforced. We should embrace, rather than erode, the critical thinking and open-mindedness that distinguish our campus from the tendency of student bodies elsewhere to march first and ask questions never.

There are already significant resources available to students who want to advocate for their perspectives in ways that enrich, rather than diminish, our political discourse. Last year, a classmate and I co-founded the Williams chapter of the Alexander Hamilton Society – an organization that works to advance its particular perspective not through trendy, bandwagon activism but through old-fashioned intellectual debates – and we were able to secure ample funding through ordinary channels. But the primarily educational goals of this and similar organizations represent a much more valuable contribution to the Purple Valley than efforts that eschew conversation for demonstration.

While the provision of funds to bring a speaker or a film to campus creates a new opportunity for the entire Williams community, providing financial backing to students who want to attend mass protests outside Williamstown seems only to benefit those involved. While attending such an event in Washington made some students feel “moved and reinvigorated,” other Ephs would surely derive those emotions from attending an orchestral concert in Boston or taking in avant-garde theater in New York. Even setting aside that it encourages students to close ideological ranks and drown out their opposition, I question whether off-campus political protests really merit a special subsidy that we would never offer to students who prefer these other, equally rewarding personal activities.

Further, if Williams does offer special funding to groups that prioritize demonstration over conversation, can anyone doubt that a damaging imbalance would result? Given the College’s political demographics, a deluge of requests from left-wing organizations is all but certain to outnumber those originating from alternative perspectives. The one-sided character of Williams politics would not only be reinforced, it would be given new financial salience: Even if the fund’s administrators consider each request neutrally, by sole virtue of its lopsided ideological makeup, the College would still be poised to morph into a major de facto donor to the left. I think Ephs left, right and center can all agree it would be inappropriate for Williams to take sides on – and, indeed, finance – every political issue that comes along on this crude majoritarian basis.

Yet this is the path the administration and the Multicultural Center seem to have chosen, and the Record cheers them on. During tough financial times that have placed core College services on the chopping block (in our two short years at Williams, my class has seen two dining halls shuttered and the linguistics department eradicated), surely the College can find a more pressing use for its limited funds than reimbursing students who opt to vocalize their opinions in a far-away crowd. Factor in the serious problems with Williams effectively financing directly whatever side of the aisle a majority of applicants happen to support, and I believe the problems with the administration’s (and the Record’s) stance are clear. Activism is only admirable or desirable if it is deeply informed, and the College’s institutional focus should properly remain – as it has been – on informing.

 

Andy Quinn ’13 is a political science major from Lake Forest, IL. He is currently studying abroad with the Williams-Exeter Programme.

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