Aswat Asharq Al-Awsat :
Eyad Abu Shakra

Aswat Asharq Al-Awsat : American Universities… Facts And Dimensions

The "uprising" we are seeing in numerous US university campuses deserves our attention. It is a phenomenon that should be approached in a balanced manner that does blow these developments out of proportion. Nonetheless, we cannot overlook or fail to learn from them.
First, US higher education institutions, with their diverse backgrounds, scales, and funding, mirror the entire spectrum of US society in all of its diversity.
Second, the diversity of the US population has made educational institutions on its soil diverse, and these institutions have fed on its social structure, needs, and resources.
Third, the diversity of approaches to higher education in the US, and of its institutions and universities, reflect the contradictions that have shaped the country throughout its history. That can be seen in the history of the first university, Harvard, which was founded in 1636, and the eight other universities founded before American independence, all nine of which are today known as "colonial colleges."
Fourth, the evolution of education in the US is strongly tied to the knowledge revolutions of Europe, and growing local economic, developmental, and technological needs also fueled this evolution. This is reflected most clearly by the "Morrill Act" that was passed in the 19th century, which sought to foster applied sciences by financing public institutions of higher education through “land grants” granted by every American state to support practical fields of study like engineering, agriculture, veterinary medicine, and all applied sciences.
The politicized movements in the US are more "latent" than are "newly emergent." From the very start, religious and sectarian contradictions precipitated the first "academic split." with the establishment of Yale University, which was founded by conservative priests who had graduated from Harvard. They rejected what they saw as the "unruliness and heretical liberalism" of their alma mater. Thus, Yale became a bastion of "conservative" Christianity that contrasted with Harvard's "liberalism."
American universities of different religious and sectarian affiliations emerged after that. At first, they were split along Protestant-Catholic lines, then among different Protestant denominations. Jewish universities, some religious and others secular, then followed. Socially, parallel public and private education (including religious and sectarian universities) crystallized. Between the American Civil War and before the end of the 19th century, the federal government recognized "black universities," whose origins can be traced back to Protestant religious roots.
Just as Hollywood played a crucial role in the liberal opposition to the far-right phenomenon of McCarthyism, university campuses- particularly those in the Southern states- became arenas for pushing back against the right-wing governors and politicians of the South. That happened as the civil rights movement gained strength in the 1950s and 1960s. During this period, racist fanatics refused to allow black students to enter predominantly white universities. Dr. Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, a prominent anti-racism activist, was among the most prominent figures of this era, as was his leading opponent, George Wallace, the governor of Alabama at the time.
Then, in the sixties and early seventies, the Vietnam War as well as the forced conscription that followed, played a fundamental role in “revolutionizing” and “radicalizing” a generation of American university students. While the most famous scenes are those that came out of University of California campuses, especially UC Berkeley, the most heart-wrenching event of this period unfolded in Ohio’s Kent State University during the spring of 1970 when 4 students were killed and 9 others severely injured after being shot by the National Guard.
The tragedy in Kent State and the mass outrage seen across the country became a turning point. Not only did it transform Washington's approach to the Indochina wars, it also invigorated students’ political consciousness, making American youths feel that they could influence society despite the tyranny of the “establishment” and the hegemony of “influential lobbies” that complement and work alongside them.
Moreover, the Cold War’s conclusion with the “American” West defeating the “Soviet” East left a profound impact on US society, as it did the rest of the world. While many leftists in Europe and Latin America felt extremely disappointed by the collapse of the Soviet socialist model, many Americans felt that Washington’s victory had affirmed the superiority of the capitalist model. Indeed, this victory was by the hero of the “hard right” Ronald Reagan... not the “centrist” or “moderate right” politicians who tend to favor engaging in dialogue and making compromises with rivals.
It seems that the decline in the economic and living conditions, in the period following the fall of the “Berlin Wall” and the end of the “Cold War,” quickly dispelled this collective sense of “pride.” With no enemy to fuel military spending, industries tied to the army were scaled down, some bases were closed, and some weapons programs were shut, and this led to negative economic and social repercussions. As a result, radicals came to dominate both the Republican and Democratic parties, eventually leading to massive swings in subsequent transfers of power.

After moderate Republican President George H. W. Bush lost his reelection bid, radical Democrat Bill Clinton became president for eight years. Then, after the radical Republican George Bush Jr won reelection, radical Democrats retook control of the White House when Barack Obama, the first African American president in history, won the election, also remaining in power 8 years. The Obama years may have played a crucial role in the election of Donald Trump, whose radical right-wing populism represents the polar opposite of what his Democratic predecessor stood for. Then, as soon as Trump’s presidency ended, Joe Biden, Obama’s vice president and “walking shadow” won power. Many expect him to face off against Trump again as the polarization between the Republican “right” and the radical Democratic “left” exacerbates.
In light of this state of affairs, university campuses seem like flammable arid fields... Indeed, the repercussions of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the aggravating confusion in Washington on how to deal with Russia and China, especially regarding the Ukraine war and the future of Taiwan- and now the Gaza War, the massacres being broadcast by the international media every day- the youths in the US, both residents and citizens, have become more certain that the Republican and Democratic party “elites” are not up to par. These youths believe that they are lacking in wisdom, responsibility, and humanity.
This crisis of confidence has led young people to voice their opposition on university campuses the way they can, which is natural...
It is natural, in contrast to the excessive reactions of the two sides of the ruling establishment “elite,” be it public representatives or the powerful vested-interests “lobbies” they are tied to.