Yes, "student" is an identity - Macleans.ca

Yes, “student” is an identity

We may or may not agree on our goals, but we do have a lot in common

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A couple of recent posts here have got me very riled up. They point towards a suggestion that I find very disturbing. The idea, in a nutshell, is that being a student doesn’t mean anything.

I find this idea to be disturbing because any experience that takes years of your life and tens of thousands of your dollars and is often critically determinative of your future must be, by definition, meaningful. I consider it self-evident that this meaning extends to some shared identity with other people who have the same experience at the same time. The idea that this commonality doesn’t even exist in a tangible way – that education happens but “student” isn’t an identity – that’s just wrong.

My frustration started here. This was a post in which my fellow blogger, Robyn Urback, essentially defended her right to blog about any topic at all under the banner of campus issues. Not to put words in her mouth but the rationale seems to be that students care about stuff and therefore blogging on student issues includes blogging on anything students can conceivably care about – or in other words everything. I disagreed then and I disagree now.

More recently we have Erin Millar and Ben Coli blogging on the CFS. This is in response to a wider dialogue, but they seem to have raised the point that not all students agree with even the most basic stated goals of the CFS, such as lower tuition and universal access. This is doubtless true. They further emphasize that the student body is not homogeneous. Also doubtless true. But then they set the bar for justifying the CFS’s goals and agenda impossibly high – literally suggesting that until all students agree the CFS is wrong to advocate on a particular point or to present it as a student position. And that’s just ridiculous.

I am by no stretch of the imagination a supporter of the CFS. I disagree strenuously with their tactics and approach to advocacy. But I would never go so far as to suggest the essential idea of collective action is flawed. The standard for advocacy has never been and never could be that all members of an identity group must agree before an agenda can be put forth. Whatever my feelings about the CFS, and in particular some of their side projects, I have never doubted for an instant that their essential goals of lower tuition and universal access are widely shared and supported by students. No, there is not absolute consensus and never will be. But that also isn’t required.

I set these examples beside one another because I wish to demonstrate how these are flip sides of the same coin. Robyn suggests that being a student means everything – and therefore nothing. Erin and Ben suggest that we have no true issues in common at all. To my mind, either approach is incredibly damaging. To deny the reality of a shared student identity – and yes one that is distinct from the general population – is to undermine the hope that we will ever organize effectively to promote our concerns or even to give voice to them.

It isn’t always easy to walk the line between these two extremes. This is the very problem I tried to address when I wrote about the limits of an elected student’s mandate. Of course students have very real and shared concerns that are recognized, if not universally, then at least by the overwhelming majority of students. And we are as entitled as anyone to organize to express our shared concerns. But there is always the temptation to simply grab the ball and run with it, and to begin expressing more and more marginal positions that do not, in fact, represent students fairly as a group. Sometimes people miss that balance, even with the best of intentions. But it is there.

The surest way to disempower any group or position is to deny the existence of real, shared concerns. Yes, students are members of wider society and have a diverse array of interests, beliefs, and other aspects to their individual identities. But just as surely, students have a shared role and relationship to society that is important and meaningful. If pitbull owners and cyclists can organize to flex their political agendas, then surely students can do so legitimately and effectively.

Questions are welcome at jeff.rybak@utoronto.ca. Even the ones I don’t post will still receive answers, and where I do use them here I’ll remove identifying information.