I am a big proponent of experiential learning—I run an internship program, after all. But I do have some problems with the Dalhousie course on social activism that has organizing a protest as part of the curriculum.
Experiential learning is meant to provide opportunities for students to apply theoretical learning in practical settings. Undergrads in Communications can produce a video for a charity. History students can work in a museum. Law school students might spend time working for Legal Aid. These are real-world applications for university students.
Social activism involves efforts to bring about social change. It is a valuable and important part of our democratic system. And certainly, there is value in encouraging students to be socially aware and civically active.
But a course that comprises a classroom activity of organizing and carrying out a protest on a subject the class votes for seems a waste of energy and time. “Pick a topic, any topic.”
I have argued elsewhere that those who engage in protests should aim to be persuasive and productive. An effective protest should be part of a larger plan of action. Protests raise awareness of an issue, but if there is no follow up, it is an exercise in futility. Is there value in teaching students to have pointless protest marches? I don’t think so.
I lived in Montpellier, France, in 2002-2003, where there was some protest nearly every day in the town square. Sometimes it was medical students protesting their tuition fees. Other times it was against the Iraq war. Larger protests were staged against the proposed raising of the age for retirement. As we lived near the town square, we grew accustomed to marches, drums beating, and whistles blowing.
The professor of the Dalhousie course argues that protest marches raise awareness of issues. But constant protests just make people cynical. When each day brings the same rounds of chanting and marching, societies ignore protestors, finding them more irritating than effectual.
Social activism should involve identifying serious social injustice and developing plans to move the issue forward. This usually involves legal, political, and media action. It requires research and fundraising. Learning to develop a plan for social activism is highly valuable and is no doubt part of the Dalhousie course. Such a course should also involve evaluating the effectiveness of various activism techniques. Students could then determine if a particular course of action is persuasive or pointless.
The particular topic of North Korea chosen by this year’s class is a valuable one for social activism. However, there is nothing the average person on the street in Halifax can do to improve the lives of those living under the harsh repression of the Kim Jong-un regime. The protest march seems pointless if it does not move people to take particular action that will have an impact. This action was not part of a larger plan and only raised awareness of a social injustice to university students and professors, none of which can make a difference in North Korea.
This generation of students wants to make a difference in the world. While there is certainly nothing wrong with having practical, experiential learning as part of a university course on social activism, hopefully students are not being encouraged, or even required, to participate in pointless protests for the sake of attaining a better mark in the class. Rather, they should be equipped to be persuasive in effecting change.