Generally speaking we try on this blog to avoid getting involved in more tedious debates on the left blogosphere, and generally speaking it’s a good policy. However, I wanted to comment on something that’s been bugging me for a while. It’s a common offence, particularly amongst the commenters on Socialist Unity, but is often replicated by people who should know better. You don’t have to read very far to find examples of it. It’s a patronising, dismissive and often downright nasty attitude towards students.
You’ll find it in reports of demonstrations, especially anti-fascist ones. Organisations are accused of “bussing in students”. Demonstrators are denounced as a “bunch of students” with no connection to working class life. This happens just as much on the left as the right, coming from a commentariat who seem to think that if you have a place in the Higher Education System your involvement in politics is somehow merely a hobby, or at least in some way not real.
The question that strikes me whenever this comes up is: “How do you know they are students?” Now, a student union banner, chanting about students, a concern for education cuts, all these are good evidence. But often, when you ask this question you get a different response: “You can just tell.” Often this is supplemented by some odd claims about clothes and accents, or haircuts. The absurdity of this struck me recently at the Right to Work Conference. I attended the session on Education cuts, because I actually am a student. But from where I was sitting I could see the session on organising temporary and part-time workers. The thing is, the young people I could see in that session looked a lot like the young people in my session. They were talking about organising in call centres and other vulnerable work places, not about organising on campuses. But they were wearing the same range of clothes, had the same range of accents and haircuts. Funny that, workers, looking like students.
Except, it’s not funny, it’s fucking obvious. Firstly, many of them were graduates. This shouldn’t shock anyone who’s familiar with the expansion of Higher Education over the past decades. Secondly, young people wear the same kinds of clothes as other young people. The minute you join the workforce you don’t start dressing differently in your spare time. You still hang around with the same friends, who may still be students. I’m writing this from Liverpool. I’m confident that if I were to be seen with my old schoolfriends in the pub we would all be labelled as students. Except I’m the only one who has spent more than a couple of months in Higher Education.
Often these comments are motivated by a genuine concern that a demonstration, event etc isn’t rooted in a local community or involving the people it claims to represent. There’s nothing wrong with students, of course, but there are some campaigns they shouldn’t dominate. But these sorts of comments often go beyond reasonable critique and betray a patronising and dismissive attitude to young people in general. It’s lazy, it’s stupid, and those who use it should grow up a bit.