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Volume 2, Number 2, Feb 2002

Student Resistance: A History of the Unruly Subject

Boren, Mark E. (2001). New York: Routledge.
ISBN 0-415-92624-6

Review by Bill Warters

Students and administrators of today may be surprised to learn that the first universities were in fact founded by students themselves, who understood that banding together could protect their interests and amplify their power. According to author Mark Boren, the early medieval universities were little more than student guilds or collectives, and they used their bargaining power to force cities like Paris and Bologna to grant them tax exemptions, along with a raft of legal rights and privileges. When townsfolk tried to gouge them on rent and board, as the Bolognese did in 1217, the students simply removed their university from the town, and returned only when city officials agreed to their demands.

While those of us in the conflict resolution field like to think of the Fourth R as conflict "Resolution", the author of this book suggests instead we should think student "Resistance". In this book, Mark Boren chronicles more than 500 years of strife between activists and academia and demonstrates that students have confronted governments, society and their own universities for as long as institutions have existed. From the Middle Ages to the present, Boren highlights major student rebellions throughout the world.

While kind of power that students exert has changed dramatically over the centuries, it looks like students may continue to make waves if current research is on track. The February 1 Issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education reported results from the recent annual survey of college freshmen. The survey, given every fall since 1966, is normally conducted during freshman orientation and the first week of classes, and reflects students' attitudes and behaviors in their last year of high school as well as their expectations for college. The 2001 report is based on the responses of 281,064 students at 421 four-year institutions.

Results show that the 2001 crop of college freshmen are more left-leaning politically and more likely to participate in organized demonstrations than their predecessors. Though 49.5 percent of the freshmen surveyed considered themselves "middle of the road" politically, the percentage of students who said they were "liberal" or "far left" hit a 20-year high (29.9 percent) -- outnumbering those who said they were "conservative" or "far right" (20.7 percent). Given the fact the the survey was conducted before the September 11 attacks, we may have to be somewhat cautious in interpreting the results. But in any case, students are feeling feisty.

While there are many books on the student activism of the 1960's, and a few about the student antiapartheid movement of the 1980s and current antisweatshop and antiglobalization agitation on campus, few provide the breadth (worldwide) and scope of Boren's book. Three chapters are devoted to the period from the Renaissance through the
nineteen century; three to the first six decades of the 20th century; three to the 1960's; and one each to the 1970's, 1980's, and 1990's.

While the tales of struggle are generally interesting, in order to cover the kind of ground he sets out to, Boren falls back often on a no-frills, worldwide summary of political events in which students were centrally involved. If you are interested in student power and group conflict, or are looking for a place to start some research, you might really appreciate a concise book of popular history such as this.
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Page last updated 11/27/2005

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