100 Years of Student Movements

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In 1918, Argentinian students, deeply dissatisfied with an education system which was still largely autocratic and dogmatic, occupied the country’s universities. The "Manifesto of Cordoba" they produced outlined the changes they were seeking, not just in terms of the university as a bureaucratic entity, but in relation to the process of knowledge production as such. Together with demands for the transparent election of academic staff, student participation in decision-making, and university autonomy, they also questioned the role of universities in maintaining the status quo. The concept of ‘extensión’ - that knowledge needs to interact with the social spheres outside of academia - came into being, posing critical questions concerning the nature of research and education: Knowledge for whom? Knowledge by whom? Knowledge for what? Thus, a university model, deeply embedded in its community and in a sense of responsibility towards society was born, inspiring similar movements across Latin America.

American, French and Mexican student protests in 1968 (www.blackstudies.ucsb)

The decade of the 1960s was a unique time of collective student action at universities around the world in relation to issues of free speech, civil rights and identity politics, opposition to war and colonialism, and self-determination and independence movements. Still central were questions of Whose knowledge counts? How have they been silenced by regimes of western coloniality and imperialism – and what roles have these legacies played in creating and maintaining contemporary global inequalities and injustices. Radical scholarship and cross-cutting praxes that intersected with a range of community, national and global justice movements were mobilised to shift the centre(s) of Anglo-European hegemony. As University of California - Santa Barbara organisers of a conference that observed the 40 year anniversary of the 1968 student movements note, these movements: 

began a process of liberation from the intellectual McCarthyism of Cold War pedagogies that kept students from imagining themselves as legitimate sources of a new democratic politics for the 20th century….Students saw themselves as the agents of change within the university, contesting disciplinary knowledge and the disciplining structures of education and in the process creating new disciplines and new approaches to studying the soul of their nations. (www.blackstudies.ucsb.edu/1968/scope.htm)

Nearly 50 later, University of Cape Town students initiated the Rhodes Must Fall protest to have the statue of Cecil Rhodes removed from the campus. This action gained strength as a broader movement about the pervasive institutional racism cultivated by and through the country’s colonial history. #RhodesMustFall galvanised mobilisation on other South African campuses, and similar campaigns in the UK and the US. Their work has extended beyond the physicality, imposition and reproduction of colonialist knowledge formations and the racialized social orders they have given rise to, to failures to productively and genuinely mirror and engage student diversity, to issues of student fees and housing, staff diversity, hiring and promotion, and the exploitative treatment of university employees of colour.


Students at the London School of Economics mobilised around the question of the ‘whiteness’ of the curriculum (#whitecurriculum). In interviews (whitecurriculum.wordpress.com), one noted that whiteness needs to be understood within the wider histories of colonialism and imperialism. Another student observed that the problem is not just the provision of exclusively Eurocentric or western perspectives, but that they are presented as universal truths, rather than as specific to particular cultures, worldviews and interests. Another emphasised that the exclusive celebration of white authors and ideas is further problematic in that they are fundamentally based on and thus continually reproduce the negative stereotypes of people of colour and non-western cultures that have been constructed and empowered by these historical projects.  (https://rmfoxford.wordpress.com/)

Decolonising the  Curriculum Platform UCD

For more information contact: Dyuti (dyuti.chakravarty@ucdconnect.ie) or Emma (penneye@tcd.ie)

© 2017 Alice Feldman

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