April 13, 2010

Student Activists: Entering the Arena

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A while back I was at a meeting of one of my organizations when someone raised the idea of staking the quads to raise awareness for our cause. I immediately loved the idea and said so to the body. “Someone should totally do that,” I chirped. Well, as it happened, someone wasn’t asked to do it — I was, along with a few others.

Our little task force had never staked anything before, but no worry. We assigned one person to reserve the spaces and massage the gatekeepers to those spaces. Another sought advice on what length of stakes to buy, what thickness of laminate to use and where to position ourselves for maximum visibility. As a group we did our best to come up with an eye-catching display, content that met the University’s demands and got our point across. Last of all, we got up early — REALLY EARLY — to actually put the things in the moist ground — a feat when you forget the hammer, or, better put, didn’t foresee the need for one.

To you perpetual protesters out there, this experience might seem like kid stuff (so freshman year). But I dare say I learned something. Namely, I’m now a guy who knows how to stake a quad. Some soft skills were involved too. I tried my hand at working in a group (never again). And in the end I think we created some awareness and good will in the community out of a few sheets of paper, some wooden stakes and a whirlwind of e-mails.

In light of my other activities and imminent departure from this place, such a simple task not only taught me some skills with a fast-approaching expiration date, but it caused me to consider learning outside of the classroom at Cornell in general. The glossy brochures that sell Cornell to pre-frosh assure them that this sort of hands on, service learning is an important component of a well-rounded education and will help transform them into active citizens who care about … blah blah blah. Newbies are assured that such opportunities are both accessible and good. But good for what? What is the value of an extracurricular education?

For starters, life is extracurricular. But I’ll first look at what an extracurricular education is not good for: building your resume for the long term. Sure, your first employer or grad program may show interest in your activities as an undergrad, but after you land that first job you should probably rewrite your resume in a major way if you want to be treated like a grownup. Resume 2.0 will no longer highlight your hyperbolic biweekly column in the campus daily or your heavy involvement in the Panhellenic Competitive Eating Series (PheCES). But there is non-instrumental value in all this extracurricular activity, right?

Sure there is, but it may be different from what you think. As far as I can tell, it’s not about learning to work in groups or serve a higher good. It’s not about any soft skills or leadership. Most of these various and sundry lessons could be learned, are learned or are learned well via formal education. Activities and organizations by the students for the students have value because they are about creation. The creative act. The act of creation. Some of us pass out pocket-size Bibles on Ho Plaza (my highlight from last week came when I could honestly tell the student that I have the App for that). Others beg their classmates for a gift to the Senior Class Campaign. Regardless of what we choose, working and serving in student-run organizations is our chance to become actors on Cornell, Ithaca and the world’s stage. No longer just critics, full of snark, we finally and actually get to do something.

And in the doing we notice how hard it is. We’re no longer churning over the works of dead white men looking for mistakes. We’re not cutting down some other group’s installation with a pun or a pickaxe. No, we become the raw material for news, for analysis, for consumption, for enjoyment, for disgust. We are creative, active, and thus vulnerable. And this is the value of the student group, the student protest and the student movement — the methods of becoming movers of the world, not merely commentators, and thereby learning respect for the difficulties faced by those who strived before.

We may not make major cosmic waves. The New York Times probably won’t take notice of what we do, unless it’s unusually smart or obscene. We may not be terribly original in the sense that bizarro versions of ourselves are probably doing similar things at colleges around the country. But, as Teddy, the source of much wisdom (and my moniker), would be quick to point out: At least we become the men and women in the arena.

Original Author: Andrew Daines