- 05 Sep 18
To everything there is a season, we are told. Well, yes. So maybe the time is right for students to rise up and start marching again.
“Ev’rywhere I hear the sound
Of marching charging feet, boy
‘Cause summer’s here and the time is right
For fighting in the street, boy”
‘Street Fighting Man’ was the first single off the Rolling Stones’ album Beggar’s Banquet and was released within a week of savage confrontations between police and protestors at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Many radio stations refused to play it, claiming that it was subversive and might provoke further violence. But it still became part of the soundtrack to the riots.
It was, literally, a sensational year. The Viet Cong’s daring Tet Offensive in February stunned the US military in Vietnam, as it did the political establishment back home, delivering the first fatal blow to the US commitment to the war. So much so that President Lyndon Johnson opted out of running for another term. In April, Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis. In June presidential candidate Bobby Kennedy was shot dead in California. They do that in America.
‘Street Fighting Man’ was triggered when Mick Jagger heard the leftist intellectual Tariq Ali speak at a rally against the American war in Vietnam at London’s US embassy. Mounted police were on hand to control the 25,000 protestors. But Jagger was also inspired by the violent student revolt in Paris in May 1968.
Somewhere around that time, a generation came of age. The baby boom after the end of World War II was the biggest ever population surge in the advanced economies, and it changed the world. First came the ’60s pop and fashion explosion, then everything else. Sooner or later it was going to get political and it did… As Bob Dylan sang, “Come mothers and fathers throughout the land / Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command.”
One sees the world with particular clarity and idealism between 16 and 25. After that, life tends to blunt the blade. Experience grinds it down. Commitments gather, cynicism grows, fears too. But “When ya got nothin’ ya got nothin’ to lose.” It’s no surprise that students were to the fore fifty years ago, and again in later rebellions around the world. The most celebrated sturm und drang of student protest fifty years ago may have been elsewhere, but there were protests and occupations here too, in Dublin at any rate. UCD’s “gentle revolution” is perhaps the best known though this may owe a debt to the later eminence of some of its leaders.
Of course, fifty years ago Ireland was a very different place. It was also very different to most of the advanced societies of the West, though the same generational change was in train. While the country shared the broad optimism and ambition of, say, the UK or the US of the later 1960s, Ireland was still mostly backward, conservative, exceptionally insular, inward-looking, pessimistic, migratory.
For example, bizarrely, women students weren’t allowed to wear trousers in UCD until a mass protest in 1966 by women students, all wearing trousers, finally did for the rule. But many others remained. Students complained at the “disorderly and disrespectful” move from Earlsfort Terrace to the Belfield campus. Other student issues highlighted would ring a bell today, such as loneliness and isolation and, of course, cost. But, and it’s important to stress this, the protesting students also addressed wider Irish social issues, including housing, a major issue then as now, with a trenchant campaign being run at the time by the Dublin Housing Action Committee.
Students were a small, elite group, as a glance at the education statistics for February 1968 show, the figures for higher education in particular. There was a grand total of 21,737 students at that level. Of these university students, 2,421 were born in 1949 and 679 in 1950 (the latter, presumably, were first years but so too were many of the 2421). By comparison, the figure for 2018 is 181,039, more than an eight-fold increase. Basically, seven of every ten people born in 2000 will attend some form of higher or further education. So, students are no longer an elite in Irish society.
The world they inherit is in most respects utterly changed, though not necessarily for the better. Most of the jobs opening up would have been unimaginable fifty years ago as would the liberality and generosity of the society.
But the battle to lift us to where we are now took all of those fifty years. Things got worse before they got better. The oil crisis of the 1970s triggered a great recession, which was followed by the age-old response of disillusionment and emigration. At the end of that decade the arch-conservatives struck, first with the visit by the then Pope and within five years the 8th Amendment.
It has been a long struggle since then, socially and economically. There have been many heroes on both fronts, most of them uncelebrated. We should also acknowledge the enormous contribution from the European Union, especially through the Structural Funds. Without this we could still be like Albania.
Yet, some things remain the same and these have set the agenda for today’s students. Some are to do with student life, the cost of living, housing and mental health services in particular. But students need to see these in their wider context. Housing and health are two of this country’s major social issues as they were in Grandad’s time. The control of schools by religious orders, and the process of social reproduction they are so clearly a part of is another.
Then there are those issues that frame the world we live in, of which three seem especially pressing: equality, global climate change and the fight for truth.
On climate change, look at what’s happened already this year: wildfires on three continents, a million people fleeing floods in southern India, the Arctic’s strongest sea ice breaking for the first time on record... at this rate there may not be an earth for today’s students to inherit.
As for fake news and media manipulation, where would you start? In 2018 every student is a digital native, having reached maturity in a world of social media and truth manipulation, a world that has grown immeasurably darker in the past two years as the cost of “free” services has become clear. Not to mention the rising proportion of teenagers who envisage careers as celebrities (over 50% in the UK, we are told) and weird phenomena like “Snapchat dysmorphia”, people wanting plastic surgery so they look more like they do in filtered photos on social media sites. Well, the student riots in Paris 1968 began with a demand for males and females to sleep together, so who knows how a specific issue might twist its way to significance. But the core thing is this: one’s time as a student isn’t just about learning knowledge and skills, important as these are.
It’s also about life, about reflecting on what we see around us, on learning to think for ourselves and how best to interrogate and influence those with the power to institute change. And sometimes the street really is the stage on which to act.