Op Ed originally published at Thrive Global
December 19, 2019 by Kathleen McCartney, 11th and current President of Smith College
Families across America are gathering to celebrate the winter holidays, share meals and stories, and connect across the miles. College students home on break will bring with them not only new learning and new friends but, in many cases, new or deepened identities as activists. Add to the mix a volatile political climate, and the potential for cross-generational flashpoints is high. It doesn’t have to be.
The last few years have seen a dramatic rise in student activism. Growing income inequality has led this generation to understand that they might not achieve the same standard of living as their parents. The world is being destroyed by carbon emissions. Students have witnessed police violence — even murder — in person and on their cell phones. Yet critics, largely older and outside of academia, are calling students snowflakes.
Student activism isn’t new. American students have long protested wrongs they have identified, such as the war in Vietnam during the 1960s, apartheid in South Africa during the 1980s, and lack of research and resources for people with AIDS in the 1990s. During late adolescence and early adulthood, the college years, the psyche is particularly engaged with matters of justice, equality and fairness, as adolescents’ cognitive abilities enable them to examine moral problems for the first time. Yes, their voices might be loud — perhaps because they hold far less political power than their elders.
Individuals like 16-year-old global warming protester Greta Thunberg, and student organizations like 350.org and Divest Ed that advocate for fossil fuel divestment, are challenging governments, colleges and universities not merely to reduce their carbon impact but to become forces for climate justice and economic equity.