On Campus

University students: ignorant, apathetic dolts?

You aren't an idiot for not participating in student politics

University students are ignorant apathetic dolts. At least that is the impression one gets from the latest musings of the usually insightful, newly-minted Peak opinions editor, J.J. McCullough.

McCullough scolds the Simon Fraser Students’ Society for tackling issues of no direct relevance to SFU students and that they can’t do anything about. His particular complaint is that the SFSS board used its first meeting to express “solidarity” with the 14 U of T protesters facing criminal charges for their role in a sit in at the univerity in March, whom he describes “as a gang of preening thugs four provinces over.”

McCullough then concludes that such neglect of the SFU campus “speaks volumes to how the SFSS views its mandate and priorities.” This would have been an adequate end to his column, but McCullough is not satisfied, so he goes on to bang the old drum that if only students cared, things would be different. And if SFU students “continue to remain disengaged . . . then they have no one to blame but themselves.”

McCullough writes with a sense of urgency, that now is the time for students to take notice, and, one may assume, the failure to do so would be disastrous for the idea of student democracy. It is not entirely clear why McCullough opted to close his argument this way other than that he wanted to say something profound, or maybe something stinging, perhaps to shake students from their absentia from student politics. But all he accomplished was the cheapening of an otherwise cogent argument, that student unions should focus on their own campuses.

I shouldn’t single McCullough out. Pick up any campus paper, in virtually any week, and in nearly any year from time immemorial, and you’re likely to find someone complaining about the “death” of student democracy. Every time an allegation of stolen elections, misappropriated money or just garden variety corruption, is levied at the mandarins in charge of your day-planners, it is held up as proof positive of democracy’s demise.

Commentators go back and forth between blaming so called student apathy for providing fertile ground for corruption, to blaming corruption for the apathy. Before anyone calls me a hypocrite, I admit that I have made my own pathetic contributions to this line of argument.

It is never enough to critique a policy or denounce a scandal on its own. Nope, it is rarely acknowledged that sometimes calling attention to a scandal is nothing more than proof that attention to a scandal has been called. The threat of the system collapsing, no matter how trivial the offence, is always imminent.

The problem, as I see it, is a misunderstanding of what grants student unions the legitimacy to govern student space, offer services, and represent students to a university’s chief governing bodies. The “democratization” of the ivory tower that occurred primarily in the 1950s and 1960s — and that brought us such spectacles as the tenured professor becoming acquainted with picket signs — has entrenched the notion that all areas of university life must be governed democratically.

But for all the posturing that both student executives and their critics make about the importance of democratic principles, student democracy has never really existed, and if it did it was long ago, perhaps in a galaxy far, far away. Therefore, student democracy can’t fail, if only because it is impossible to erode something that isn’t there.

Of course, on the surface, student unions appear to extol the virtues of broad based representation. All students have the right to vote, all faculties are represented, usually on the basis of their size, rules are in place theoretically to ensure open and accountable processes, and the presence of eager candidates who believe they are being democratic.

But so what?

No institution purporting to be representative that routinely gets less than 10 per cent voter turnout (and where 20 per cent is considered “high”) can be democratic. This reality does not exonerate those who complain about the collapse of student democracy, unless one concedes that the same disease strikes virtually every campus every year, and that every student executive past, present and future is to blame, not to mention the hordes of “apathetic” students who have ever stepped foot in one of our institutions of higher learning.

At the most basic level, the chief function of holding elections is to select political elites. But the presence of elections does not make a country, institution or organization democratic. Democracy implies a certain way of legitimizing authority, that power is derived from the “people.” It is not enough that all be granted the right to participate, participation has to actually occur.

Students, on balance, have rejected the option to participate, not because they are apathetic or because some student executive (in, say, 1992) fleeced the union’s budget, as student commentators are so quick to tell us, but for any number of other reasons. The most likely explanation, I would argue, is that students are generally just passing through and don’t necessarily see a long term interest in their student government.

But none of this means that student unions are illegitimate, which (I suspect) is the real reason the charge of “undemocratic” is tossed around so often. When you can’t think of anything else to say, argue they have no right to represent students in the first place. This is a fallacy that comes from the notion that the only way to organize politics is democratically.

For practical purposes student governments are more akin to elected aristocracies, but instead of being chosen from and by people of noble birth, they are chosen by and from that segment of the student population (small as it is) that cares enough to notice that there is such a thing as a student council.

And this is where student government derives its authority from, and it is only to these students that (functionally anyway) student executives are accountable to. This is what confers legitimacy, because that is the way student unions have come to operate, and because (on the whole) it works pretty well.

While student leaders gain power illegitimately from time to time, it is not because some high-minded concept has been betrayed, but because the union’s own rules have been broken. Few ever question the legitimacy of a student union in and of itself.

Those concerned with such matters would do well to recognize that what is often criticized as a deviation from normal governance is not a deviation at all, but rather the practical reality of organized student politics.

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