Re-examining Lawrenceville Student Activism

in Editorials | September 16, 2023

          On a Tuesday in March, year 1229, students from the University of Paris entered a tavern in the quarter of Saint Marcel. After some rowdy drinking, a fight broke out over an unpaid bill. Beat up and angry, the students returned the next day, armed with clubs, to destroy the establishment. The university gave Paris’ city guards the permission to restrain the rioters, a decision that proved fatal.

          In response to the use of force, students at the University of Paris went on strike. Classes were shut down and many students withdrew, placing an economic strain on the university and the entire city of Paris. After two years of negotiation with papal authorities, the University of Paris no longer needed to abide by local laws and the strike finally ended. 

          Nearly 500 years later, the relationship between schools and their students, especially in Great Britain and the U.S., had become defined by the Latin phrase In Loco Parentis, meaning “in the place of the parent.” In America, colleges promoted their parental roles by extending the reach of their responsibilities beyond academics, including restricting freedom of speech and prohibiting organizations from demonstrating on campus. When the Alabama State College expelled black students for a civil rights protest, the case was brought to the Supreme Court , and the practice of In Loco Parentis was struck down in the 1961 Dixon vs. Alabama case.

          In fact, the 1960s marked a remarkable period of student activism. Much of the Civil Rights movement was spearheaded by college students—take the 1961 picketing of “white-only” restaurants spearheaded by Southern University undergraduates, and the subsequent march in downtown Baton Rouge protesting the students’ arrests. In 1968, graduate students at the University of California Berkeley coined the term “Asian American” in founding the Asian American Political Alliance (AAPA), which would later go on to hold the longest student strike in U.S. history with the Third World Liberation Front. Their strike resulted in the first College of Ethnic Studies in the U.S. at the San Francisco State University. 

          Clearly, student activism has a long history and powerful impact. From die-ins protesting police violence, to the Never Again movement started by the 2018 Parkland Shooting survivors, student activism also holds the incredible ability to garner nationwide support and change. 

          Lawrenceville, however, has never seen a walkout, a peaceful protest, or a demonstration. In a place of immense privilege, many fear radical activism at the risk of losing that privilege. Though the School is a bubble mostly free from the outside world, it still proves to be a microcosm of off-campus issues. For example, the house runs on Friday, September 1 and its incidents of “students joining the struggle over possession of the flag, [resulting] in a number of Crescent students being knocked to the ground” (as quoted from the Dean of Students update) demonstrated the need for communication and safety. In the Crescent Meeting on Monday, September 11, numerous students voiced their concerns on the discrepancy of regulations between the Circle and Crescent, as well as the inherent Lawrenceville culture that could provoke the behavior on display during the house runs. 

          The meetings held by the Dean of Students showed the commitment the School has to starting dialogues with the student body. Yet even when a meeting is not specifically called, students should be willing to express their frustrations. On the other hand, making change as young students in a place where In Loco parentis still plays a large role can be incredibly difficult. According to Julie Reuben, a professor of the history of American education at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, “Whereas college students are often considered adults, teenagers are often dismissed as acting out when they challenge adult authority within their administration.” Thus, “High school activism takes place best when it’s focused on the outside community, not the school itself,” Reuben says. 

          In last week’s Editorial, the Board wrote that “We the students are now sowers of the future, and it’s up to us to grow campus culture according to our desires, expectations, and standards.” We should be unafraid to stand up for what we think is right and true. As history and the present show, many coalitions and grassroots movements—such as the Civil Rights Movement, Future Coalition, the School Strike for Climate—were spearheaded by young people. If we want Lawrenceville to be a school driven by student-led change, then protests, walkouts, and true expression of concern should become commonplace.