On Monday, November 17th, the Rally to Prioritize Postsecondary Education took place at the legislature. Beginning in Quad at the University of Alberta, a long line of students from all five CAUS institutions – U of A (including delegations from Campus Saint-Jean and Augustana), U of C, U of L, MacEwan and Mount Royal – marched along 109th Street and across the High Level Bridge, ending up at the foot of the legislature. Well-organized, dynamic, and interspersed with eloquent speeches, the rally peacefully and effectively conveyed student concerns to the provincial government and community at large. As one participant of hundreds chanting – “No ifs! No buts! No education cuts!” – I found myself feeling thrilled, hopeful and anticipatory. More than anything, I felt privileged to be surrounded by a group of students who were moved by something, and felt the urgency to fight for our future.
The reasons to prioritize postsecondary education have been concisely articulated by Blue Knox and the value of postsecondary education thoughtfully pondered by Hanhmi Huyhn earlier this week. I’ll avoid reiterating the political arguments of this issue, and instead discuss ideas surrounding active participation in social movements. Despite the rally being a success, attendance was a mere 1% of the University of Alberta’s total student population (the percentage is actually lower when taking into account the students who attended from other institutions). Of course it is unreasonable to expect most students to attend a rally held on a Monday afternoon during a busy time of the semester. Nonetheless, 1% is quite clearly a gross underrepresentation of the student population that could have attended.
Perhaps what’s more alarming than the government continually devaluing education is the lack of active resistance to this problem in large numbers. It is easy to label students as apathetic or passive or entitled. However, this attitude oversimplifies the issue, failing to consider the reasons why we often refrain from tackling seemingly overwhelming problems. It has also been said that beyond a threshold number of people required to make a rally effective, the number of participants doesn’t really matter. But this viewpoint doesn’t reach the heart of the matter. Even when recognizing the implications of the government’s disinvestment in education, why do so few students and citizens take action, particularly when the issue at hand could affect them very strongly?
A lack of understanding about the nuances of the issue may dissuade individuals from actively opposing education budget cuts. Never-ending details, exhausting policy, and hidden loopholes collectively appear to be a colossal mess of political complexities, a daunting task for anyone to face. However, the converse is also true. I often find myself feeling more confused the more I understand an issue, particularly when varying parties have equally convincing arguments. This poses a significant challenge to political participation – if you don’t know what to think, it’s difficult to muster the motivation to fight for a cause. It is easy to feel overwhelmed by an issue of great magnitude. Historically, humans have failed miserably to prevent injustices proactively, preferring instead to address them once they’ve reached a tipping point.
Unfortunately, in the case of postsecondary education, strength of argument has been overtaken by the power of involved individuals. Differing interests between varying factions of society and universities have been exploited to justify budget cuts. After all, it is easier to divide and conquer than overtake a united front. The ability to understand varying viewpoints, although difficult, is integral to advancing the movement to prioritize postsecondary education. Out of fear of being controversial, individuals may remain silent on issues rather than vocally taking a stance in an attempt to be neutral. The claim that neutrality is an expression of fairness is puzzling, given that an implication of neutrality is indifference, a fundamentally damaging approach to social movements. Perhaps staying silent in situations of conflict is diplomatic and well-intended, but its effects are often unintentionally unfair. I am reminded of Richard Rorty’s cynical viewpoint that “Truth is what your contemporaries let you get away with.” If students are not vocal about their concerns and beliefs, what becomes the ‘truth’ is what it’s convenient for the government to say – that students are indifferent to the budget cuts, or at the very least, that they aren’t strongly opposed.
We’ve all heard the clichéd adage that actions speak louder than words. But maybe inaction speaks louder than words, too. I can remember the importance of being an ‘active citizen’ being stressed to me from all of my social studies teachers, from the first grade all the way to the twelfth. I also remember how we idealized ‘making a difference,’ particularly in elementary school, before we’d ever petitioned or protested or voted. Children tend to naturally and innocently deplore wrongdoings. What’s interesting is how this passionate sense of injustice seems to dissipate with age. Perhaps this reflects a kind of wisdom, an understanding of what you cannot change. But maybe it is a kind of problem, too – an underestimation of one’s ability to enact change. The resulting tension between what we want to happen and a failure to act in a way that might bring about this result is an all too familiar sentiment.
So how can we stop the government’s broken promises? We may not have yet discovered the solution, but perhaps the key involves reconciling our youthful idealism with adult pragmatism.
It is important to note that there is a faction of staff, students and citizens who are incredibly dedicated to acquiring sustainable funding for postsecondary education. Like these advocates, we should immerse ourselves as wholeheartedly as possible in the movement against education cuts. To students who were unable to attend the rally – it’s not too late to get involved! I encourage everyone to explore avenues for fighting education cuts, whether through involvement with your Students’ Union, meeting with your MLA, or simply raising awareness by discussing the issue with your family and friends.
The immediate advantages of active political participation are obvious: greater publicity for a particular cause, enhanced understanding of an issue at hand, and practical experience in activism. What is perhaps less evident is an integral element to advocacy – cultivating empathy towards others. In some cases, complacency may make it easy to forget that many students are not quite so fortunate to be in the position to successfully manage their tuition, and that many talented university staff have lost their jobs. Active participation in political movements does more than make our voice heard to others – it forces us to reexamine what it is we believe in, and consequently, helps us hear our own voices clearer. Perhaps the irony is that a threat to our education is a form of education in itself, a kind that we could not receive otherwise.
Photography courtesy of Nikita-Kiran Singh.