Skip to content Skip to footer

Occupy Colleges Now: Students as the New Public Intellectuals

Students are recognizing that it is crucial to struggle for the university as a democratic public sphere.

Police pepper spray students at a UC Davis demonstration on Friday, November 18.

Part of the Series

Finding our way to a more humane future demands a new politics, a new set of values, and a renewed sense of the fragile nature of democracy. In part, this means educating a new generation of intellectuals who not only defend higher education as a democratic public sphere, but also frame their own agency as intellectuals willing to connect their research, teaching, knowledge, and service with broader democratic concerns over equality, justice, and an alternative vision of what the university might be and what society could become. Under the present circumstances, it is time to remind ourselves that academe may be one of the few public spheres available that can provide the educational conditions for students, faculty, administrators, and community members to embrace pedagogy as a space of dialogue and unmitigated questioning, imagine different futures, become border-crossers, and embrace a language of critique and possibility that makes visible the urgency of a politics necessary to address important social issues and contribute to the quality of public life and the common good.

As people move or are pushed by authorities out of their makeshift tent cities in Zuccotti Park and other public spaces in cities across the United States, the harsh registers and interests of the punishing state become more visible. The corporate state cannot fight any longer with ideas because their visions, ideologies and survival of the fittest ethic are bankrupt, fast losing any semblance of legitimacy. Students all over the country are changing the language of politics while reclaiming pedagogy as central to any viable notion of agency, resistance and collective struggle.

In short, they have become the new public intellectuals, using their bodies, social media, new digital technologies, and any other viable educational tool to raise new questions, point to new possibilities, and register their criticisms of the various antidemocratic elements of casino capitalism and the emerging punishing state.

Increasingly, the Occupy Wall Street protesters are occupying colleges and universities, setting up tents, and using the power of ideas to engage other students, faculty, and anyone else who will listen to them. The call is going out from the University of California at Berkeley, Harvard University, Florida State University, Duke University, Rhode Island College, and over 120 other universities that the time has come to connect knowledge not just to power, but to the very meaning of what it means to be an engaged intellectual responsive to the possibilities of individual and collective resistance and change. This poses a new challenge not only for the brave students mobilizing these protests on college campuses, but also to faculty who often relegate themselves to the secure and comfortable claim that scholarship should be disinterested, objective and removed from politics.

There is a great deal these students and young people can learn from this turn away from the so-called professionalism of disinterested knowledge and the disinterested intellectual by reading the works of Noam Chomsky, Edward Said, Jacques Derrida, Howard Zinn, Arundhati Roy, Elaine Scarry, Pierre Bourdieu and others who offer a treasure trove of theoretical and political insights about what it means to assume the role of a public intellectual as both a matter of social responsibility and political urgency.

In response to the political indifference and moral coma that embraced many universities and scholars since the 1980s, the late Said argued for intellectuals to move beyond the narrow interests of professionalism and specialization as well as the cheap seductions of celebrity culture being offered to a new breed of publicity and anti-public intellectuals. Said wanted to defend the necessity – indeed, keep open the possibility – of the intellectual who does not consolidate power, but questions it, connects his or her work to the alleviation of human suffering, enters the public sphere in order to deflate the claims of triumphalism and recalls from exile those dangerous memories that are often repressed or ignored.

Of course, such a position is at odds with those intellectuals who have retreated into arcane discourses that offer the cloistered protection of the professional recluse. Making few connections with audiences outside of the academy or to the myriad issues that bear down on everyday lives, many academics became increasingly irrelevant, while humanistic inquiry suffers the aftershocks of flagging public support. The Occupy Wall Street protesters have refused this notion of the deracinated, if not increasingly irrelevant, notion of academics and students as disinterested intellectuals.

They are not alone.

Refusing the rewards of apolitical professionalism or obscure specialization so rampant on university campuses, Roy has pointed out that intellectuals need to ask themselves some very “uncomfortable questions about our values and traditions, our vision for the future, our responsibilities as citizens, the legitimacy of our ‘democratic institutions,’ the role of the state, the police, the army, the judiciary, and the intellectual community.”[1] Similarly, Scarry points to the difficulty of seeing an injury and injustice, the sense of futility of one’s own small efforts, and the special difficulty of lifting complex ideas into the public sphere.[2] Derrida has raised important questions about the relationship between critique and the very nature of the university and the humanities, as when he writes:

The university without condition does not, in fact, exist, as we know only too well. Nevertheless, in principle and in conformity with its declared vocation, its professed essence, it should remain an ultimate place of critical resistance – and more than critical – to all the power of dogmatic and unjust appropriation.[3]

Chomsky and the late Zinn have spoken about and demonstrated for over 40 years what it means to think rigorously and act courageously in the face of human suffering and manufactured hardships. All of these theorists are concerned with what it means for intellectuals both within and outside of higher education to embrace the university as a productive site of dialogue and contestation, to imagine it as a site that offers students the promise of a democracy to come, to help them understand that there is no genuine democracy without genuine opposing critical power and the social movements that can make it happen.

But there is more at stake here than arguing for a more engaged public role for academics and students, for demanding the urgent need to reconnect humanistic inquiry to important social issues, or for insisting on the necessity for academics to reclaim a notion of ethical advocacy and connective relationships. There is also the challenge of connecting the university with visions that have some hold on the present, defending education as more than an investment opportunity or job credential, students as more than customers, and faculty as more than technicians or a subaltern army of casualized labor.

At a time when higher education is increasingly being dominated by a reductive corporate logic and technocratic rationality unable to differentiate training from a critical education, we need a chorus of new voices to emphasize that the humanities, in particular, and the university, in general, should play a central role in keeping critical thought alive while fighting back all attempts to foreclose and pre-empt the further unraveling of human possibilities, prodding human society to go on questioning itself and prevent that questioning from ever stalling or being declared finished. Corporations and the warfare state should not dictate the needs of public and higher education, or, for that matter, any other democratic public sphere.

As the Occupy student protesters have pointed out over the last few months, one of the great dangers facing the 21st century is not the risk of illusory hopes, but those undemocratic forces that promote and protect state terrorism, massive inequality, render some populations utterly disposable, imagine the future only in terms of immediate financial gains, and promote forms of self-serving historical reinvention in which power is measured by the degree to which it evades any sense of actual truth and moral responsibility.

Students, like their youthful counterparts in the 1960s, are once again arguing that higher education, even in its imperfect state, still holds the promise, if not the reality, of being able to offer them the complex knowledge and interdisciplinary related skills that enable existing and future generations to break the continuity of common sense, come to terms with their own power as critical agents, be critical of the authority that speaks to them, translate private considerations into public issues, and assume the responsibility of not only being governed but learning how to govern. Inhabiting the role of public intellectuals, students can take on the difficult but urgent task of reclaiming the ideal and the practice of what it means to reclaim higher education in general and the humanities, more specifically, as a site of possibility that embraces the idea of democracy not merely as a mode of governance but, most importantly- as journalist Bill Moyers points out – as a means of dignifying people so they can become fully free to claim their moral and political agency.

Students are starting to recognize that it is crucial to struggle for the university as a democratic public sphere and the need to use that sphere to educate a generation of new students, faculty and others about the history of race, racism, politics, identity, power, the state and the struggle for justice. They are increasingly willing to argue in theoretically insightful and profound ways about what it means to defend the university as a site that opens up and sustains public connections through which people’s fragmented, uncertain, incomplete narratives of agency are valued, preserved, and made available for exchange while being related analytically to wider contexts of politics and power. They are moving to reclaim, once again, the humanities as a sphere that is crucial for grounding ethics, justice and morality across existing disciplinary terrains, while raising both a sense of urgency and a set of relevant questions about what kind of education would be suited to the 21st-century university and its global arrangements as part of a larger project of addressing the most urgent issues that face the social and political world.

The punishing state can use violence with impunity to eject young people from parks and other public sites, but it is far more difficult to eject them from sites that are designed for their intellectual growth and well-being, make a claim to educate them, and register society’s investment and commitment to their future. Students can be forced out of parks and other public spaces, but it is much more difficult to force them out of those sites designed to educate them – places that are identified with young people and register the larger society’s obligation to their future and well-being. The police violence that has taken place at the University of California campuses at Berkeley and Davis does more than border on pure thuggery; it also reveals a display of force that is as unnecessary as it is brutal, and it is impossible to justify. These young people are being beaten on their campuses for simply displaying the courage to protest a system that has robbed them of both a quality education and a viable future.

But there is more. It is also crucial not to allow casino capitalism to transform higher education into another extension of the corporate and warfare state. If higher education loses its civic purpose and becomes simply an adjunct of corporate and military power, there will be practically no spaces left for dissent, dialogue, civic courage, and a spirit of thoughtfulness and critical engagement. This is all the more reason to occupy colleges and use them as a launching pad to both educate and to expand the very meaning of the public sphere. Knowledge is about more than the truth; it is also a weapon of change. The language of a radical politics needs more than hope and outrage; it needs institutional spaces to produce ideas, values, and social relations capable of fighting off those ideological and material forces of casino capitalism that are intent in sabotaging any viable notion of human interaction, community, solidarity, friendship, and justice.

Space is not the ultimate prize here.[4] Politics and ideology are the essence of what this movement should be about. But space becomes invaluable when its democratic functions and uses are restored. In an age when the media have become a means of mass distraction and entertainment, the university offers a site of informed engagement, a place where theory and action inform each other, and a space that refuses to divorce intellectual activities from matters of politics, social responsibility and social justice.

As students and faculty increasingly use the space of the university as a megaphone for a new kind of critical education and politics, it will hopefully reclaim the democratic function of higher education and demonstrate what it means for students, faculty, and others to assume the role of public intellectuals dedicated to creating a formative culture that can provide citizens and others with the knowledge and skills necessary for a radical democracy.

Rather than reducing learning to a measurable quantity in the service of a narrow instrumental rationality, learning can take on a new role, becoming central to developing and expanding the capacity for critical modes of agency, new forms of solidarity, and an education in the service of the public good, an expanded imagination, democratic values, and social change. The student intellectual as a public figure merges rigor with civic courage, meaning with the struggle for eliminating injustice wherever it occurs and hope with a realistic notion of social change.

Hopefully, the Occupy Wall Street movements will expand their appropriation of public space to the university. And if so, let’s hope that higher education will be viewed as a crucial public good and democratic public sphere. Under such circumstances, the university might be transformed into a new and broad-based community of learning and resistance. This is a huge possibility, but one worth struggling for. Unlike the youth movements of the past, such a movement will not crystallize around specific movements, but will create, hopefully, a community of the broadest possible resistance and political clout.

In this way, the Occupy movement will connect to the larger world through a conversation and politics that links the particular with broader notions of freedom and justice. And against the pedagogical machine and political forces of casino capitalism, this expanding movement will fight hopefully with renewed energy. It will be determined in its mission to expand the capacities to think otherwise, and courageous in its attempts to take risks. It will be brave in its willingness to change the nature of the questions asked, fight to hold power accountable, and struggle to provide the formative culture for students and others to fight for those economic, political, social, and cultural conditions that are essential both to their future and to democracy itself.

1. Arundhati Roy, “Power Politics” (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2001), p.3.
2.Cited in Edward Said, “Scholarship and Commitment: An Introduction,” Profession (2000), p.6
3.Jacques Derrida, “The Future of the Profession or the Unconditional University,” in Derrida Downunder, Laurence Simmons and Heather Worth, eds. (Auckland, New Zealand: Dunmore Press, 2001), pp. 233-247.
4. This issue is taken up by brilliantly by Peter Marcuse. See Peter Marcuse, “The Purpose of the Occupation Movement and the Danger of Fetishizing Space.” Peter Marcuse’s Blog (November 15, 2011). Marcuse is especially helpful in rejecting the fetishization of Zuccotti Park while distinguishing among seven functions of the movement: A confrontation function, “taking the struggle to the enemy’s territory, confronting, potentially disrupting, the operations at the center of the problem.” A symbolic function which registers a collective and “deeply felt unhappiness about things as they are and the direction in which they are going.” An educational function, “provoking questioning, exploration, juxtaposition of differing viewpoints and issues, seeking clarification and sources of commonality within difference.” A glue function, “creating a community of trust and commitment to the pursuit of common goals; [providing] a way of coming together in a community for those who are deeply affected and concerned. “An umbrella function, “creating a space … in which quite disparate groups can work together in pursuit of ultimately consistent and mutually reinforcing goals … a political umbrella, an organizing base for an ongoing alliance, not just a temporary coalition, of the deprived and discontented.” An activation function, “inspiring others to greater militancy and sharper focus on common goals and specific demands … providing space for … cross discussions among supporting groups and interests, organizing … events in support of … reforms that [suggests] Occupy’s own ultimate goals of change.” A model function, “showing, by its internal organization and methods of proceeding, that an alternative form of democracy is possible.”

Countdown is on: We have 6 days to raise $39,000

Truthout has launched a necessary fundraising campaign to support our work. Can you support us right now?

Each day, our team is reporting deeply on complex political issues: revealing wrongdoing in our so-called justice system, tracking global attacks on human rights, unmasking the money behind right-wing movements, and more. Your tax-deductible donation at this time is critical, allowing us to do this core journalistic work.

As we face increasing political scrutiny and censorship for our reporting, Truthout relies heavily on individual donations at this time. Please give today if you can.