Students are looking for something different from teachers and professors as they prepare to enter political and civic life, and that means educators need to change the way they support students when it comes to political engagement.
That’s the argument made by Timothy Law Snyder, president of Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, who has been writing and speaking about the issue in recent months. He calls today’s high school and college students and other members of Gen Z the “solidarity generation,” because of their skills in organizing on social media and interest in working across traditional partisan divides on issues like gun control, environmental protection and racial justice.
He argues that one of the most important aspects defining Americans born between 1997 and 2013 is how diverse they are demographically. Growing up during a string of school shootings and the economic and racial divides brought to light by the COVID-19 pandemic and the killing by police of George Floyd have contributed, Snyder argues, to an impatience with the status quo and a disillusionment with the idea of “rugged individualism” and being left to go it alone.
“We cannot shy away from situations that at least initially render us uncomfortable. This generation will not allow it,” he wrote in a recent article on the topic. And just as students are finding more solidarity with each other, he says educators need to seek to bring students into the process of changing educational systems like never before, in what he calls “intergenerational solidarity.”
That argument stands in stark contrast to recent proposals by Florida governor Ron DeSantis, who is championing legislation that would prohibit public colleges in the state from projects that “espouse diversity, equity and inclusion or Critical Race Theory.” Meanwhile, a new university getting off the ground in Texas called the University of Austin aims to avoid what its leaders see as a “liberal bias” on most campuses.
EdSurge sat down with Snyder to hear more about his views on this generation of students, and what he thinks educators should do differently to teach and reach them.
EdSurge: What’s different about the latest generation of college students in your view?
Timothy Law Snyder: Students have always been interested in change, but these students are different because they’re leveraging everything available to them. Technology, social media, voting. They have the second highest turnout [compared to] the last dozens of years in the most recent election. And they are seeking to actively make change. They’re actually doing things, they’re standing up to other generations while at the same time seeking to and literally partnering with other generations. That’s all different.
Can you give an example?
Sure. Zee Thomas [then 15 years old], within five days of the murder of George Floyd, partnered with five friends on Twitter, and within those five days they had a 10,000 person march on tap and ready.
We look at things like the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting. Within a month of that, students organized 800 different protests across the United States involving over 2 million people total. That’s amazing.
What does a college need to do differently for this generation?
We need to partner with them in ways we have never partnered. So frequently when we work with students, there’s a disposition — particularly among the faculty and even more so among the administration — that we know what we are doing. That we will determine what is best for you. We will determine the curriculum, we will be the sages on the stages. We are the wise ones, trust us.
Those days are over. These students want change, they want it now, they want to be involved in it. And they know they have experiential deficits relative to the rest of us. So the best way to work with them is to say, we’re going to not only respect you, we are going to partner with you, we are going to admire you, we are going to help you work on your issues because you are so good in your solidarity that those are also our issues — take for example, gun violence, take climate control, take issues of race — that we are going to give up some ground here educationally, even in curriculum. … I think we need to step back and say, we need as much help as you do. And that’s what we’re doing now, at least at LMU.
Could you say more about how you are giving ground on the curriculum? What’s an example of that?
Decolonizing the curriculum. Our students of color, particularly our Black students, have actually met with our faculty senate and discussed their issues with them. The faculty senate has taken action. I suggested we do this in a letter I penned called Beyond Words that we put out just following the murder of George Floyd. And our faculty have taken on this disposition where they’re saying it’s about time, this is right. We’ll still design the curriculum, but we are going to be doing it with your input going forward. That’s an example. And to see faculty recraft curriculum, that’s awesome. We don’t often see that in higher education.
One of the points you’re making is that there’s a solidarity among students in their activism. But it seems like the assumption is they’re activists on the same side. Actually it seems like there’s plenty of viewpoint diversity, especially among the students. So what happens when your activist students don’t agree with each other, and you might not agree with them? Essentially what do you do with the massive polarization that’s out there as it goes to this point?
We do have some polarization in general across the nation. The students are relatively to the left, and when I say relatively, I mean relative to the rest of the nation. And that is something that we need to accept.
I think a lot of people view students as blank slates. If you look for example of what’s happening in Florida with Governor DeSantis and [his] proposed revision of what we’re allowed to teach and what we’re not allowed to teach. All that assumes that the student walks into your classroom and they are the chalkboard free of chalk, and that our job is basically to write the script for them. It doesn’t work that way. You get what walks in the classroom these days. The students have reconciled the issues. They’ve thought through them. They have their opinions.
To your question about dissent within the student body, I think we have less of it than we have in the past, particularly in the traditional left/right. We have quotes from students following recent elections where they say they’re not voting partisan as are their elders — persons like myself — at times. But they are very much more issue-oriented.
We do have concerns — and I think this is actually an issue at our institution — where students whose voices are minoritized politically feel like they’re really out of the club. So that’s where we have student groups to which they belong. The concern there is those can become echo chambers as much as their counterparts. So we are trying to bring them together in conversation.
The motif I always use is when we have a conversation, let’s arrive prepared to melt a little bit, maybe all the way to the core, but we want to walk away from a conversation saying, by virtue of this conversation, I have changed and I have changed for the better via and through what I have learned. I’ve mentioned that in speeches to students. I don’t think we’re quite there yet, but we’re working on it.