The political wars on today’s college campuses are being quickly reduced to a small number of unsatisfying explanations. Many of these are injurious and insulting to the students who already hold marginalized positions within the university. Diatribes against the “coddling” of students may have given way to debates over “free speech.” But both conceptual frameworks, despite notable complications to the latter, get in the way of any meaningful understanding of the situations students, faculty, staff, and administrators find themselves confronting.
Representing campus protests under the heading of free speech helps to obscure the actual struggles occurring over the allocation of resources and the revision of curricula—struggles being led by students. In the context of campus rape, structural racism, gender-based wage discrimination, and skyrocketing expenses over student housing, battles over “free speech” might as well be waged on a different planet. At stake on college campuses today is the status of students as intellectuals—but to shift the discussion to this terrain requires a radical reimagining of who gets to be an intellectual in the first place.
To look at the situation differently, it might help to think alongside Antonio Gramsci, the Italian communist, political theorist, and educator who died in 1937, shortly after being released from prison. Some of Gramsci’s best known writing revisits the nature of intellectual work. Gramsci might have seen the question of campus protest in 2017 as a question about who the intellectuals are on college campuses, and about what it means to do intellectual work in the location where it’s most expected to happen: the university.