By Clay Risen

The typical logo-emblazoned cap, a staple at most universities, costs around $20. Of that, $1.50 goes to the school, $18.42 goes to the manufacturer and about eight cents goes to the worker who made it.

Despite new evidence that affirmative action in higher education helps both minority and white students, it is being repealed by state courts across the country.

Boise Cascade, one of the largest paper suppliers on U.S. campuses and Georgetown’s primary office supply house, has been cited by environmental groups for its pollution-intensive production process.

And centered in California, there is a new trend linking campus technology improvements with corporate initiatives, giving companies unchecked access to the classroom, in some cases being allowed to influence levels of teacher-student interaction and even curricula.

With so many issues, one is tempted to ask, stealing a line from Bill Bennett, “Where’s the outrage?” Why is it that even with so many issues touching students’ lives every day, all we see are isolated outbursts, often prompted by media hype, that die out as soon as the spotlight dims? Besides heated rhetoric and a candlelight vigil on Capitol Hill, what is the legacy of Matthew Shepard?

Today’s students do not face nearly the same kinds of issues of our parents’ generation – institutional racism, the Vietnam War, women’s rights, the list goes on. But one might still expect something, some sort of awareness that a university is not just a place to have fun and get ready for a job.

But then again, maybe it’s just that – maybe the university is, nowadays, more and more just an extension of the market, a place for students to prepare for the workplace and little else.

In the February 1998 issue of The Monthly Review, York University professor David Noble argues that in contrast with the traditional “Ivory Tower” image that drove students in the 1960s to protest campus discrimination and cooperation with the military-industrial complex, today’s university is as much a part of the corporate world as it is the academic.

“The major change to befall the universities over the last two decades,” he writes, “has been the identification of the campus as a significant site of capital accumulation, a change in social perception which has resulted in the systematic conversion of intellectual activity into intellectual capital and, hence, intellectual property.”

Just as corporate power is becoming the pivotal issue in so many social concerns, students have been coopted by that very power. Noble notes that universities are now both producers of commodities (future employees) as well as consumers. Resistance becomes impossible when those who should resist are inextricably part of the system.

Take school apparel. Most college kids know that most universities get their merchandise through licensing out their logos to companies who, in most cases, use sweatshop labor, often children, to produce mass quantities of items at little cost.

But, on the other hand, most college kids depend on these same tees and sweatshirts – as gifts, as a source of school pride, as a major part of their own wardrobes. As a result, students have implicated themselves in the very oppressive practices they should be opposing.

What’s more, in a world where campuses are more or less training grounds for the corporate world, where undergraduate “business” has been one of the fastest growing major for years, how likely is it that students will come out against the crimes of Corporate America?

Procter & Gamble, who has one of the worst records in terms of animal testing, also employs a large number of graduating seniors, at great salaries. Knowing that, how many kids are likely to turn out for a PETA rally?

More to the point, how likely are students to raise a voice at all, knowing that prospective employers will scrutinize their college records?

In the end, college kids thinking about activism must ask themselves – how does a year of protesting sweatshop labor stack up against the chance for a $50,000 salary, plus a signing bonus?

Faced with this two-fold pressure to be passive, students have little choice but to ignore injustice, even when they have the capacity to do something about it. Where’s the outrage? Oh, it’s probably there, but no one’s going to admit it.

Clay Risen is a Contributing Editor of The Hoya.

Have a reaction to this article? Write a letter to the editor.

Comments are closed.