The Cyclical Death and Rebirth of Academic Apathy

An anecdotal dive into the history of student movement and involvement, from Paris ’68 to Amsterdam today.

By Per Movig

Illustration by Per Movig

— On October 28, 2021, the second of three planned AUCNext Community Sessions took place in Amsterdam University College’s academic building, with hybrid accommodations in place for those joining on Zoom. The project intends to formulate a strategic plan for the future of AUC in the period 2021-2026. The sessions were an initiative to involve the larger AUC community in the process – both students and faculty were welcome to attend and give their input on various matters.

According to a preliminary document widely circulated to staff (but not so much to students) in preparation for the first AUCNext Community Session on October 13, a commitment to “learning together” is foundational to the project.

The second session progressed similarly to the first. Many faculty members were present, some in- person, others as floating heads in a Zoom call projected onto a screen above the stage from which Michiel van Drunen, Head of Education (HoE) at AUC, chaired the meeting. Students attended as well, though they were largely outnumbered by the faculty. Since this session was dedicated to the curriculum, students and faculty voiced their opinion about topics such as mandatory courses, learning objectives, and course development. The air in the room was belligerent. No one was truly happy with the proposals the HoE, Dean, and management were throwing at them — and hardly any support was expressed. Still, this was a negotiation, and the overall understanding was that everyone would be heard out.

This illusion was shattered when Dr. Alexandra Brown, teacher at AUC, inquired whether anyone was taking minutes. The answer was a shocking and resounding ‘no.’ Everything would be taken into consideration, but nothing would be written down. The words of students and staff who were truly trying to make a positive change were destined to dissipate in the air without ever reaching their destination.

It was then that a thought came across this reporter’s mind: how did we get here? A review of the histories of various student movements, small and large, in different times and different places, filled with anecdotes and off-topic avenues, paved the road to reaching an answer: we got here by killing and birthing apathy.

Timeline by Per Movig

What took place in the academic building that day is nothing new. Students have been trying to make their voice heard for almost as long as universities have existed, and the most explosive historical example of such an attempt is without any doubt Paris, May 1968.

A movement which would eventually evolve into a nationwide strike of six to ten million workers started with a handful of upset students at the Nanterre campus of what was at the time the University of Paris. Why were they causing trouble? Well, they wanted boys to be allowed into the girls’ dormitory. While this may seem incomparable to the struggle of factory workers demanding fairer wages and better working conditions, it is very much in line with the Parisian spirit of 1968.

Professor Anne-Marie Moulin, a now 77-year-old French physician and philosopher, had just completed her undergraduate degree in Philosophy at the École normale superieure in 1968. This education came with perks: a civil servant job lined up and a salary secured for life. Like many of the Parisian students at the time, Moulin was in a favourable position. “I had the utmost degree of academic safety — security” she says, which she enjoyed by enrolling at medical school while teaching on the side for income. Moulin never took part in the movement, but she was there, and remembers the general Zeitgeist well.

In her chronicle of the events of May ’68, Mavis Gallant, writer for The New Yorker, gets asked and asks the question: qu’est-ce que nous avions voulu, exactement? (what was it we wanted?) She didn’t know the answer, and neither did the people she asked. 1968 was a notoriously elusive revolution, and the only thing anyone appeared to agree on is that no one agreed on anything at all.

Nevertheless, Moulin tells of her perspective, which she shared with many of her friends, colleagues, and acquaintances: “I did not see May ’68 as an academic event. […] We talked and thought about freedom: freedom to travel, freedom to speak, […], sexual freedom.” She’d experienced the same as the students at Nanterre. Boys were only allowed over in the girls’ dormitories on Sundays between two and five in the afternoon.  

Illustration by Per Movig

The male students at the École normale, on the other hand, were free to receive girls whenever they wanted. May ’68 was about a resistance, initially against sexist dormitory policy, which bled through to all other facets of everyday life. Vietnam — the first major war to be televised — was suddenly closer to home. Even more so during demonstrations in Paris, according to Moulin, where you could meet international students from all over the world, including vocal American students who made it clear that they did not want to be drafted into the army. 

This bred solidarity; solidarity for the peace-loving American, the Albanian on the other side of the iron curtain, and the Nigerian stuck in a postcolonial regime. Moulin explains that the naïve belief that the era of wars had ended was torn apart by globalisation, and then transformed into the optimism of the young, sparking the confidence that they could bring about change. Stop forbidding us to live our life and to say our words, they began to think, il est interdit d’interdire (it’s forbidden to forbid), they chanted.

Before May ’68, fires were already burning: students in Madrid demonstrating against Franco; the Prague Spring; countless anti-Vietnam protests across the US, Germany, the UK, Italy and more; Japanese students protesting against the presence of the American military in Japan; the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., resulting in protests in over 115 American cities; and a threatened boycott by more than 40 Olympic teams at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico city against the admittance of Apartheid-state South Africa, to name but a few.

It all started with the Baby boomers, says Dr. Jonathan Gill, who teaches the Counterculture course at AUC. The students grew in numbers, Gill explains, and the universities became sites of protest covering a diverse range of issues — from the environment, to Vietnam, to gay rights.

May ’68 doused it all in gasoline, strengthening this revolutionary spirit further. In August 1968, anti-war protests in Chicago went on for five days until they were suppressed by the National Guard and the army. Demonstrations against the government in Mexico raged all summer, eventually ending in the Tlatelolco massacre on October 2, 1968. And in the Netherlands, students in Tilburg occupied the Katholieke Hogeschool for nine days, starting on 29 April 1969, and defiantly renamed it the ‘Karl Marx University’ in a plea for a more democratic and equal university. 

Not even the Dutch capital was safe. Following the events in Tilburg, roughly 700 students at the University of Amsterdam occupied the Maagdenhuis, the administrative building of the UvA. Unlike at the Sorbonne, the Amsterdam students knew exactly what they wanted and made this very clear: more student involvement in the goings of the university. Even though the police locked off the entire building, hoping to lure out hungry and thirsty occupants, the students maintained a steady supply line by smuggling in wares through the university library. They had held out for five days, from 16 to 21 May 1969, when the police vacated the building through brute force.

The occupation wasn’t in vain, though. In 1970 the Wet Universitaire Bestuurshervorming (the University Governance Reform Law) or WUB was adopted, which mandated that students were allowed to join the University Council (but could only make up a maximum of 33%). This gave students significantly more influence in university governance and changed the Dutch university system forever. Pragmatically, Dutch students took this global revolutionary spirit and used it to rile themselves up against authority, achieving real, tangible results the aftereffects of which we see today in, for instance, its spiritual successor, the Wet op Hoger Onderwijs en Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek (Higher Education and Scientific Research Act) or WHW, which outlines the rights of the medezeggenschap (participatory governance) in Dutch universities.

The UvA wouldn’t be the only site of change in the coming years. The flame ignited in the 60s would carry on well throughout the 70s. Dr. Kenneth Vernick, 67 years old and a researcher at the Institut Pasteur, Paris, spent his teenage- and early adulthood in the mid-70s partaking in various small, anti-authority movements.

He says that back when he attended Woodward High School, Maryland, USA, he and some friends established a locker (which they referred to as “the people’s locker”) filled with anti-war, socialist, and left-wing reading material prohibited by school regulations. Anyone could borrow from it in between their classes, and “part of the philosophy was that the school system was so deadening, and so the opposite of actual education — it was more indoctrination […] — that what we were trying to do was provide the materials so that people could enlarge their awareness,” Vernick explains. 

The locker became incredibly popular, and when the administration tried to get rid of it by calling Vernick in during a fire drill, the students adapted, changing their approach to that of the “moving locker”, which changed frequently and could be identified by a small Viet Cong symbol attached to the front, the Woodward High graduate explains. Eventually, the moving locker met its unfortunate end when it caught fire — and while the cause remains unknown, Vernick still suspects that the administration had put some of the “right-wing jockey students” up to it. He wasn’t too upset about the arson. “We made our point,” he concludes, and it “was both educational and also fun!”

Vernick went on to study at the University of Maryland, where he quickly found himself at odds with the administration once again. “There was an obligatory contract — all the students had to have a contract with the dining hall, so it was this monopoly of unhealthy food” he elaborates, “so, we created a food co-op.” Vernick and his fellow students started a “guerilla sandwich line” where they would prepare healthy sandwiches and sell them at a table, strategically placed right outside the dining hall. “That also became very popular” he remarks, “cause it was selling healthy food at a decent price, unlike the dining hall.” Just like the locker saga, it turned into a cat and mouse game, with the administration sending the police after the guerilla sandwich line on multiple occasions, Vernick recites, “but there were so many people waiting for sandwiches […] that they intimidated the cops.”

Illustration by Per Movig

They tried to legally obtain a space from the administration to sell their sandwiches, but when that failed, they turned to demonstrations and the occupation of administration buildings, says Vernick. According to him, this was about more than a food co-op: “in the early/mid-70s, there was this big establishment pushback against the ‘68 period of student radicalism, and there was a lot of wishful thinking of ‘oh the students these days, they don’t care – it’s not like the radicals in the 60s.’” Of course, the students did care, and no one was going to convince them otherwise. To get that message across, Vernick says, the students at the University of Maryland got themselves a coffin, called it ‘student apathy,’ gathered wielding shovels and pitchforks, dug a hole near campus, and then buried student apathy, but not before setting it on fire first.

The protests went on for a while, Vernick continues, with some students, like the members of the student council, wanting a more reconciliary approach (so much for participatory governance), while others, like Vernick, realised that the administration was just trying to do the bare minimum to make the problem go away, and that negotiations with concessions would lead nowhere. Eventually, Vernick sums up, after thousands of students had rallied behind the cause of the food co-op, the administration gave in, finally allowing them to host their food co-op in the student union building, where it would flourish as a hub for left-wing organisation and progressivism for years to come.

Vernick’s fight could’ve been about anything. “You can feed them healthy food, but that by itself doesn’t change society,” he says. What matters is organising people and cultivating the awareness that concrete goals can be achieved when people band together. The former guerilla sandwich activist wasn’t inspired by May ’68 — “I was 13, 14 years old – you don’t really pay that much attention to the news at that age,” he says — but the older students at Maryland were, and they passed on the torch to him, and he, in turn to others. That’s how the revolutionary spirit stays alive.

So, where did the torch go? Well, in 2015 it was being carried by Lone and their comrades when they occupied the Bungehuis, a building which functioned as the UvA faculty of humanities, to protest plans to cut funding for the humanities.

The former philosophy undergraduate student, who goes by Lone and is 28 years old, would like not to be identified by their full, registered name due to their history with law enforcement. They completed their Philosophy bachelor and are currently working.

At the time, they were in their first year. Word got out, not through official channels but through teachers, that the Executive Board was planning to get rid of various courses, ranging from those in the field of Philosophy to those dedicated to small languages — and it seemed like this was “really bad for the quality of my studies,” Lone explains. Coincidentally, AUCNext, in its current state, also intends to cut down on language courses, and a petition is running against this.

Dr. Johnathan Gill giving a lecture at the occupied Bungehuis. Courtesy of his student, Avi Osipov.

Activists met in the Spinhuis, a squatted building previously used as the UvA anthropology department, and as a prison/workhouse for “unproductive women” before that, Lone continues, and the symbolism isn’t hard to spot. It was a former site of repression and control that had been reclaimed and repurposed as a site of revolt.

From September until December 2014, the “Spinhuis Collective” hosted meetings organised by the protest group “Humanities Rally.” They were evicted over Christmas and weren’t able to change the Executive Board’s decision. Thus, on February 13, 2015, while Lone was on a trip to Berlin, UvA students took it upon themselves to go a step beyond demonstrating in the streets and broke into the Bungehuis. When Lone got back and heard of this, they thought, “Fuck! I need to be there!” And so, they, like many others, climbed up a long ladder to crawl through one of the building’s highest back windows, and then tried to figure out how to make themselves useful, they elaborate.

The occupied Bungehuis, like the food co-op, was a site of connection. According to Gill, who gave a lecture there, everyone was very “netjes” (polite), and did a great job at maintaining a horizontal order. Lone says that they were immediately welcomed, given a tour of the building, and brought up to speed with the demands. Then, they headed for the farmer’s market, purchased some groceries, and came back to cook a meal for folks. “There was space for me to be able to connect with people,” they explain, “they were like-minded, or similarly angry, and sick of not being heard.”

On February 24, Amsterdam police unlocked the front door and arrested 47 occupants, including Lone. These numbers are slightly misleading. Protests before, after, and during the occupation easily drew over 2000 people. Lone relates that this wasn’t a nice experience: “it became very clear to me. The cop is not my friend. […] They’re not there to protect me, they’re there to protect the public order and private property.”

 Right after their release on February 25, Lone headed straight for the Maagdenhuis, which was occupied for six weeks following the vacation of the Bungehuis. According to Lone, an elderly man claiming to have been involved in the occupation in 1969 visited the Maagdenhuis at some point, rendering it not only a space for like-minded revolutionaries from the same generation to meet, but also a space which connected past to present, making the long history of silenced student voices painfully visible. 

In the end, a teacher who was sympathetic towards the student cause, Rudolf Valkhoff, was fired, and the head of the Executive Board, Louise Gunning, resigned. Yet, according to Lone, nothing really changed, and business went on as usual. Despite this lack of change, and despite the negative experiences they and their friends faced at the hands of the cops, Lone doesn’t regret any of it one bit, and confidently states “I’d never learned so much, as in these occupations.”

Unlike the aftermath of the Maagdenhuis occupation in 1969, the occupations of the Bungehuis and Maagdenhuis in 2015 didn’t lead to the adoption of any new laws. They did, however, make it apparent that the torch of revolution is still being ignited and passed around. Gill sees this in the Black Lives Matter movement at large worldwide and the Occupy Wallstreet movement in 2011. Moulin saw it in Caïro during the Arab Spring in January 2011, where she helped treat the wounded, feeling like she was 20 again — like it was May ’68 all over.

The university institution is changing. Many components of the WUB law following the Bungehuis occupation in 1969 have been reverted, taking power away from participatory governance bodies. Student Councils and Boards of Studies are great, but to what extent have they become so incorporated into a business-like bureaucracy as to become powerless? And what are we supposed to make of a ‘community session’ which is only attended by a handful of students whose opinions aren’t even written down? 

“I think universities are now suffering from an excess of administration,” states Moulin, who notices that post-doc and doctoral students don’t open their mouths during meetings anymore, “afraid to speak openly in front of their potential supervisors.” About the neoliberal university, Lone says, “the aim is profit, not necessarily quality.” You have to wonder whether money is on the minds of those spearheading AUCNext, too.

Students in the Netherlands have a lot on their plate. Eco-anxiety, COVID-19-anxiety, a housing crisis, a lack of job security, cops that seem to get more brutal by the minute, all coming together at a juncture which makes the future look so scary. The students in Paris, May ’68 — like Moulin — had a bright future ahead of them, and it gave them the power of the optimism of the young. At times, that optimism appears to largely have been replaced by pessimism. 

When animals are in mortal danger, sometimes they opt to play dead. Students aren’t so different. In the absence of a bright future, they’ll play apathetic. But, as these many anecdotes attest to, torch and shovel in hand, we’ve killed apathy before, and we can do it again. Whether the issue is large or small, spaces like the demonstration, the illegal food co-op, and the occupied faculty building make for brilliant burial sites.

Illustration by Per Movig

Editor’s note: This profile is part of a collaboration between The Herring and AUC’s journalism course. The story was written, edited, and fact-checked by students of the journalism course. Some content may have been altered by The Herring’s editors for clarity and style.

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