Dear Boomers, the Student Protesters Are Not Idiots

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Last week, Hillary Clinton appeared on “Morning Joe” and expressed concern about the lack of knowledge among students protesting the war in Gaza. Host Joe Scarborough asked her about the radicalism among mainstream students, suggesting they might be influenced by professors or even by the Chinese Communist government through TikTok. Clinton agreed, saying that many young people today are uninformed about the history of the Middle East and other significant historical events, including those in the United States.

I’ve been teaching college students for 12 years, most recently at New York University’s journalism school. Throughout this time, I’ve observed how some adults—administrators, parents, and others—view these students. It’s not surprising to hear protesters described as “spoiled and entitled kids” or “snowflakes” who hide in safe spaces and oppose free speech. Wealthy individuals like Ken Griffin, Bill Ackman, and Donald Trump have been particularly vocal in criticizing these students, calling them “whiny” and demanding punishment for their protests. Representative Mike Lawler, a Republican from New York, even suggested banning TikTok because he believes it’s manipulating students to create hostility in the U.S.

Whether they realize it or not, Clinton, Lawler, and others are contributing to a moral panic about America’s youth, which is part of a broader effort to discredit higher education. This effort includes fearmongering about diversity programs and critical race theory, but it primarily targets students.

In the current climate, student protesters are seen as both overly fragile and a significant threat to public safety, requiring police intervention in riot gear. To justify the police response at Columbia University, Deputy Commissioner Kaz Daughtry presented Newsmax viewers with a bike chain and a book titled “Terrorism” found at the protest site. The chain is commonly sold to students by Columbia, and the book is part of Oxford University Press’s “Very Short Introductions” series, which covers a wide range of topics.

There are obvious political factors at play: Republicans generally support Israel and have long claimed that elite universities indoctrinate students with liberal ideas. Recent research shows a significant generational divide on these issues. A YouGov poll found that 45% of people aged 45 to 64 strongly opposed the protests, as did 56% of those 65 and older. In contrast, only 12% of 18-to-29-year-olds and 21% of 30-to-44-year-olds strongly opposed them.

This isn’t just about Gaza. Similar age gaps were evident in response to protests after George Floyd’s murder. In June 2020, 87% of adults aged 18 to 34 supported the protests, according to Gallup, compared to only 54% of those 65 and older. Just 3% of the older group participated in the protests, while 26% of the younger group did.

Research shows that adults under 40 are more likely to participate in protests than those over 40 and generally prefer informal political participation. Older adults are more likely to participate by voting. However, this doesn’t fully explain the outright hostility some people direct at campus protesters.

Public figures from various political backgrounds have called for students to be expelled, made unemployable, or imprisoned. They have suggested implausible scenarios where protests turn deadly. Students risking their financial aid and scholarships are often derided as childish instead of being seen as principled. Although students are educated to participate in civic life, they are told that protecting private property is more important as soon as they exercise their First Amendment rights. Some older adults seem unable to grasp that college students, who are old enough to marry, have families, and serve in the military, can also have well-thought-out principles.

“They basically want students to shut up and study,” says Robert Cohen, a scholar of 20th-century social protest. He notes that older generations often have a bias against students, regardless of the cause. Protesting is sometimes the only way students can voice their opinions on university matters. “People do not understand that university governance is fundamentally undemocratic,” Cohen says, noting that even when students convince universities to consider divestment, they only win the right to present their case to the board.

The stereotypes about today’s students are often wildly inaccurate. Today’s college students have access to a wealth of information about complex world events, thanks to the internet and 24/7 news. While some information may come from TikTok, and social media can be misleading, there’s no evidence that college students are more misled by TikTok than older people are by Facebook. Research indicates that younger people are more media-savvy and skeptical, often checking multiple sources to verify information.

These students are also more aware of the realities of violence, having grown up with active shooter drills and news of mass shootings. They are less financially secure than previous generations and less likely to trust institutions to protect or reward them for their loyalty and hard work. However, they are not naive or oblivious, and their ideas and actions cannot be dismissed just because of a few bad actors.

Protests are inherently disruptive, which is their purpose. While big, loud crowds can be intimidating, especially to older individuals, they are a fundamental part of exercising First Amendment rights. Protests allow students to stand up for their values, engage with the world around them, and hold decision-makers accountable, even at personal risk. This activism is attracting the attention of powerful figures, including the president and lawmakers, who can enact broader changes.

In summary, the criticism of student protesters reflects a misunderstanding of their motivations and a broader attempt to undermine higher education. Despite the negative stereotypes, today’s students are informed, principled, and engaged in meaningful political participation. Their protests are a legitimate and important form of civic engagement that should be respected and understood rather than dismissed and vilified.

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