Universities historically have been some of the most important sites of contestation and revolt across the globe. In the 1960s, student protests erupted across universities in the U.S. and Europe, becoming the battleground for major political uprisings in the post-war era. In the U.S., colleges such as U.C. Berkeley, Brown University, Kent State and the University of Massachusetts became epicenters of the anti-Vietnam war movement. Meanwhile in Spain, students rose up against Franco’s dictatorship, calling for democracy and educational reforms while young Germans confronted their parents about their role in and responsibility for the Holocaust.
These protests often spread from college and high school campuses to the streets, where students found allies in unions and leftist political parties more broadly. As a result, many of the important anti-war, anti-fascist, civil rights and feminist movements that emerged in the 1960s in the West, largely emanated from universities.
My mother participated in what is widely recognized as one of the most important socio-cultural revolutions in France, known as “May 68”, when some 10 million workers joined students in their protest against capitalism, conservative post-war politics, ideals, and institutions, such as the Church and the University itself. My mother always describes it as a time of extreme hope, with students and workers occupying universities and factories, dreaming of a world where power didn’t exist. Revolting against “metro, boulot, dodo” (the quotidian rhythm of normal life – subway, work, sleep), the students became teachers; sex, drugs and rock n’ roll was everywhere; and a new world, led by the young, was being created, its slogans painted all over city walls.
Fearing an imminent communist uprising and the siege of Paris by “Russian tanks”, then-President Charles De Gaulle fled the country for a few days, dissolved the Parliament and held new elections. Life progressively returned back to normal when De Gaulle was reelected to power and order was restored. While it is difficult to place the exact legacy of May 68 in France, important civil and social gains such as workers and women’s rights and sexual liberation, can be attributed to this student and worker uprising. It is still widely believed that May 68 profoundly changed the mentality of France, so much so that former President Nicolas Sarkozy spoke of “liquidating” and “turning the page” on May 68’s legacy during his presidential campaign in 2007.
Today, despite rising tuition costs and important cuts in social science and humanities departments (particularly in Europe), universities continue their legacy as sites of revolt and political education. Forty years after May 68, as an undergraduate at the Sorbonne, I participated in one of the largest student movements in France just as my mother had. My alma mater and dozens of universities across the country were occupied, classes were put on hold for three months, while my friends and I held sit-ins, made banners, protested in the streets and dreamt of a better world.
The university is where I learned movement building, direct action, and the importance of friendship and trust in movements. It is where my politics were shaped and put to the test. It is hardly surprising that important social movements take root in universities: these are places of learning and wrestling with ideas. They are spaces where youth are amassed in one place, free to think and act, and carve out their ideologies. And above all, (particularly for those full-time students who aren’t working), they have time to dream and fight for a new future together.