Individual rights rhetoric makes strike a zero-sum game

The Daily’s editorial board has argued that students’ decision to participate in strike support activity is an individual choice and students have “every right to expect a high-quality education in on-campus University facilities” as valuable consumers in the University system.

The board has also said off-campus classes are unfair because students are already sharing the burden of a state budget cut in the form of a tuition increase. Moreover, the board has expressed annoyance for being made to feel obligated to participate in strike support activity.

We wholeheartedly disagree with the board’s position on student strike support activity.

The board asks, “Do students owe the strikers anything?” We emphatically say “Yes!” We owe them our support because this fight is our fight. The board’s answer to this question demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the economic, political and social forces fighting over the future of higher education in the United States.

Contrary to the board’s one-sided perception of students as consumers, our self-image is that of producers. We are not at the receiving end, spending money and moving from one class to another to earn a degree. We are active participants in the University learning process and perform the socially responsible acts of citizenship. We complete assignments, conduct experiments, discuss course materials with classmates and professors, participate in group and club activities and ruminate on big questions or struggle over tough problems solitarily and with peers. Like clerical workers, we do not approach public education passively. We enter the public sphere actively.

We challenge the board’s assertion of possessive individualism to make its case against strike support activity. The board’s position is that students are consumers and possessors of rights who expect a quality product: education.

Implied in the board’s rights rhetoric is that individuals have the rights to their own education, which is conceived as individual property. The emphasis is on individual property interests rather than public property interests. We do not interpret education in terms of a private enterprise, however. The work of public education is human activity, involving collaboration among diverse groups. We question the board’s effort to transform the debate over strike support activity into a zero-sum game among diverse University community participants, which encourages the possessive investment in liberal individualism.

The board’s language of liberal individualism projects the impression that the gain for one group (clerical workers) entails the loss for another group (students). Our approach to the current crisis is quite different. We pledge to carry out strike support activity with the principle of “an injury to one is an injury to all.”

If the board is concerned about students’ ability to fend off future tuition hikes, it should advocate that students organize and take on the administration when it announces its next round of punitive “shared sacrifice,” rather than pathetically cheering on the bully as it plods around the playground punching anyone who appears to be an easy target.

What the board hopes to gain from such slavish loyalty to the administration is unclear, but if it hopes its cheerleading will be remembered the next time the bully approaches them, there can be no doubt: It won’t.

Yuichiro Onishi and Jay A. Wendelberger are docotoral candidates. Send comments to [email protected]