Historical Context of Student Activism

Historical Context of Student Activism

DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-2173-0.ch002
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College students have a long history of activism and protest on campus, beginning with the founding of some of the earliest European colleges. This activism at Bologna resulted in students making decisions about who would teach and what would be taught. More contemporary activism has been noted for a brief period in the 1960s and 1970s, and that powerful experience brought social activism to college campuses as never before. The evolution of activism has resulted in a managed experience by institutions with specific outcomes, whether socialization or learning-oriented expectations, and that college administrators find an important role in encouraging healthy activism for welfare of the student's development.
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Early Activism

There is some debate about the origin of formal higher education institutions. Some point to Middle Eastern religious study circles as the birth of institutions, while others note the emergence of formal schools along European rivers where young people gathered to learn occupations. The Greek heritage of teaching and learning similarly demands attention in the discussion of the emergence of the university. Early formal institutions did evolve most notably in Europe, with the universities in Paris and Bologna often being described as the first formal type of higher education institution.

The emerging universities in Paris and Bologna were vague representations of what contemporary institutions have become, but operated with similar kinds of premises. Students moved to the cities that hosted the institutions, the institutions maintained a prescriptive code of study or curriculum, there was a transactional fee for participation in the institution, and that the institutions were largely under the direction of some form of master. These basic premises have been at the root of student activism for centuries, and are perhaps best illustrated by the case of the university in Bologna.

With a somewhat uncertain founding date, the generally recognized date has been recorded as 1088, Roman Emperor Frederick Barbaroosa chartered the existing university much later in 1158. The university’s founding was based primarily on being a location where young people began to move and collectively take actions, such as hiring tutors and teachers to provide them with instruction. As a popular place for young people to live, they immigrated into this area typically in groups from their homelands. The Bologna city laws gave very few protections to immigrants, and subsequently the students were at tremendous risk of abuse and exploitation. Groups of students banded together based mostly on nationality, giving rise to the groups being known as student nations. These student nations began to push back on the community and those landlords and business owners who attempted to exploit them. Ultimately, students found that they had more collective power when their individual student nations worked together, thus giving rise to the first use of the term ‘university.’ Thus, from the very founding of the institution, student collective action was a central component of the institution’s life.

The difference between Bologna and its peer in Paris was that the doctors and teachers in Paris took the initiative to protect their students. They consciously made efforts to attend to student housing, meals, and access to the materials needed for instruction. In Bologna, however, the student nations brought their teachers into their own direct membership in what would largely be considered the first town-gown dispute.

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