During the "Strike and Day of Action to Defend Education" on Thursday, tens of thousands of students, teachers, professors and administrators marched in California and some 30 other states to protest cuts in education spending. David Patterson, a librarian at Cañada College, a community college in Redwood City, proved typical.
Asked beforehand to explain his participation, he employed the vocabulary of idealism that appeared on every placard and sounded from every bullhorn. "I'm hoping that students . . . feel connected to Montgomery, to Selma . . . to the sit-ins, to Freedom Riders, to the farmworkers' struggle" of the 1960s and '70s, Mr. Patterson wrote on the Socialist Worker Web site. "Now that's an education: To see your fight against oppression connected to a long line of others' fights."
The demonstrations did offer a certain sort of instruction, though not of the kind Mr. Patterson and his fellow protesters had in mind. They demonstrated the entitlement mentality and self-absorption that has come to dominate much of higher education.
If you went searching for the proximate cause of the "Strike and Day of Action to Defend Education," you wouldn't find it in any pattern of oppression. You'd find it in a couple of acts of desperation last year. First, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, facing the worst budget crisis in state history, cut about $600 million in overall funding for 10-campus University of California and the 23-campus California State University. Then the U.C. regents and C.S.U. trustees, facing budget crises of their own, reduced programs, furloughed workers, and raised tuition.
Students and faculty erupted throughout California, but nowhere with quite the indignation displayed at the state's oldest and most prestigious public institution of higher learning, U.C. Berkeley. Addressing students last October, Ananya Roy, a professor of urban studies, compared the planned 32% tuition increase over a two-year period with racial discrimination. "We have all become students of color now," she declared. Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau claimed that protests "exemplified the best of our tradition of effective civil action." And so Berkeley students organized a "mobilizing conference," then disrupted the university by pulling fire alarms and occupying a building in November.
Despite the budget cuts, California will this year devote $3 billion to the U.C. system. That's about $13,000 per student—more than the $10,000 per student that Illinois devotes to the University of Illinois and better than double the $6,000 per student that New York devotes to the SUNY system. Yet Mr. Schwarzenegger did not denounce the agitation at Berkeley. He gave in to it.
"I will protect education funding in this budget," he proclaimed in his state of the state address in January. Although still facing an enormous deficit, he proposed to increase funding for higher education by 12%. A few thousand people at Berkeley threw a fit, and the governor responded by promising hundreds millions more dollars for education. What might happen, students and educators across California began to wonder, if tens of thousands threw a fit?
Plans sketched out on Web sites to "march forth on March 4th" spread from public university campuses to community colleges, high schools and even elementary schools. "The timing . . . is no coincidence," reporter Laurel Rosenhall astutely observed in the Sacramento Bee last Sunday. "Interests like to lobby for their share of the budget pie after the governor's January budget proposal and before the May revision." Soon enough, schools in Texas, New York, Rhode Island and elsewhere developed protest plans of their own.
Which brings us back to the Thursday protests.
Despite the slogans on certain Web sites—one urged students to "move the struggle forward"—the protests appear to have involved only a couple of dangerous incidents. Both took place when marchers paraded onto interstate highways, backing up traffic. If the police hadn't rounded up the marchers, truckers might have hit them. Otherwise, at nearly every U.C. and C.S.U. campus classes went on as usual. "I support the strike," one Berkeley undergraduate told the San Francisco Chronicle, "but I still have to turn in my math homework."
The protests merit our attention even so. Consider once again the vocabulary they employed.
Evoking protests against the Vietnam War, one banner carried by students at San Francisco State University read, "Shut It Down Like '68." "Today we strike!" shouted a Berkeley student, "Today we march! Today we show solidarity with the workers!" "[S]tudents of color," said Prof. Ananya Roy during a broadcast, "have been fighting around these issues for quite awhile in the U.C. system. . . . So we see this as a struggle to not only save the university, but . . . to make those issues of access and opportunity . . . visible to all."
We have here the vocabulary of the peace movement, of the struggle for decent conditions for migrants and other exploited workers, and of the civil-rights movement. Yet what did the protesters demand? Peace? Human rights? No. Money. And for whom? For the downtrodden and oppressed? No. For themselves. At a time when one American in 10 is unemployed and historic deficits burden both the federal government and many of the states, the protesters attempted to game the political system. They engaged in a resource grab.
The protests did offer students a certain kind of instruction. They taught them to replace the idealism of youth with the crassest self-pleading.
Mr. Robinson, a former speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan, is a fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.