Grade Inflation: Maybe Unfair, Probably Just

Before I left school last fall, I graded one set of students’ papers in my role as a graduate instructor at UC Berkeley. It was a basic paper assigned in an introductory sociology course, so I assumed that a competent, complete answer deserved an “A.” When I submitted my grades and sample papers for the professor to check, she demanded that I re-grade every single one. A’s, she insisted, are for excellent work that goes above and beyond the norm.

Four years at the finest undergraduate institution in the country, and I had no sense of the difference between exceptional work and simply complying with instructions.

I learned yesterday that Princeton will most likely be ending its experiment in “grade deflation.” Most of the endless discussion that began before I set foot on campus has centered on claims that the specific way grade deflation was implemented—namely, a 35%-A target for each department, with a stringent only-55%-A standard for junior and senior —was not “fair.” Maybe it isn’t: the stories about exams with A-‘s erased and replaced with B+’s certainly give that impression. “Unfair,” though, is the term you use when you feel you have a sense that you are not getting the advantages of others (i.e. students at Harvard or Yale) but have no deeper principle to back it up.

Since “fair” seems like an awfully subjective standard, and the faculty committee recommending an end to grade deflation put quite a bit of stock in such perceptions, I will offer my own. I’m reasonably sure that with a small bit of introspection, most of us—myself included—would admit that we received A’s for courses at Princeton where we did not exactly give it our all. I was shocked at the consistency with which I could get A’s by simply doing what I would have assumed, prior to coming to campus, would be the minimum—that is to say, doing the reading, starting my papers more than a night before they were due, seemingly vaguely interested in precept, and actually going to lecture. Yes, I was a sociology major—but, then again, sociologists were more “deflated” than Woody Wu majors and had lower grades to begin with.

Most Princeton students, apparently, would not agree with me. According to the grade deflation committee’s survey of students, 80% of Princeton students believe that they have at least “occasionally” had a grade “deflated,” and 40% think it has happened frequently. This must be a joke. The committee’s data suggests that the actual decline in grades due to the deflation policy was modest to non-existent. It’s mathematically possible but barely plausible to think that, during a period where average GPAs went up .05 points, 80% of Princeton students at some point received “B+’s” for “A-“ quality work.

Let me offer an alternative explanation: grade deflation is a good excuse. It’s a good excuse for students, of course, to explain why they are no longer effortlessly succeeding like they did in high school. More importantly, though, grade deflation was an excuse for professors, who could hold their highly entitled students to some kind of standard, while preserving their teaching evaluations through displacing blame onto a third party (usually Dean Malkiel).

What this last point gets at is that there’s much more at stake in grading than “fairness” within the university. Grade inflation is one aspect, although probably not a driving force, behind the ongoing transformation of American higher education. A recent experiment with grade deflation at Wellesley found that underperforming departments with underfunded students could compensate by pumping up their grades. Worse, grade inflation appeared to be a tool to mask racial disparities—that is to say, Wellesley dealt with concerns about its racial achievement gap by just offering artificially high grades to everyone. This is the Faustian bargain of modern higher education: professors, under the pressure of an increasingly competitive job market and rising non-teaching obligations, can reduce the quality of instruction by sating students with A’s and leaving them plenty of time for the real business of university life, which is to say, anything but learning.

Grade deflation is not just a matter of students’ feelings or fairness. It is an issue of justice – that is to say, the role of universities in either reinforcing or challenging structural inequalities. For one thing, as researchers like Annette Lareau have consistently shown, upper middle class students come to schools like Princeton not just advantaged in their academic skills, but also advantaged with extra-academic skills, particularly with respect to relating to authority and accessing services. Let me make this more concrete: we have every reason to believe that rich white kids are more likely to bitch about their B+ and get it raised to an A-. Working class kids are more likely to just take it, because that’s what we train working class kids to do—take what’s given to them.

Grade inflation not only worsens stratification within universities, but between them. Debates about grade deflation at Princeton nearly always contrast Princetonians’ GPAs to those of our “competitor institutions”—that is to say, the laughably high grades given out at Harvard and Yale. But Princeton students are not just “competing” with other Ivy Leaguers for Rhodes Scholarships and spots at U Penn Medical School. They are “competing” with other college graduates in the much broader universe of graduate school admissions and the labor market.

Most of Princetonians’ “competitors” come from public universities with lower grades. Although grades at public and private institutions were once comparable, and both have inflated grades significantly since the 1960s, private schools have done it more. This gap emerged precisely at the time that the position of expensive private colleges were threatened by well-funded, and cheaper, public ones. As one Dartmouth professors explained it, “we began systematically to inflate grades, so that our graduates would have more A’s to wave around.” It worked: admissions officers at graduate institutions systematically favor students who come from grade-inflated schools, even when candidates are otherwise equal. Although flagship public universities have subsequently followed suit, even after controlling for “talent level,” grades at private institutions are .1 to .2 points higher. The structural conditions of the modern public university–minimal face time with professors, huge classes, heavier reliance on testing over papers, pressures to weed out students universities can no longer afford to teach, less construction of students as paying private “consumers” who can be “dissatisfied”—makes bargaining for grades more difficult.

Of course, many Princeton students predictably insist that they produce better work than students at other institutions where grades are lower. But I find this utterly unimpressive. Princeton students have access to resources and instruction way beyond those of the vast majority of American college students. Shouldn’t our grades reflect what we, as individuals, make of the very real advantages that Princeton offers us, rather than, say, rewarding us for having those advantages in the first place?


Should a book on freegans—that is to say, people who try to live for “free” in the present through appropriating capitalism’s waste, while trying to build a future in which the things people need are provided for “free” through a gift economy—be free?

This is a purely academic question. My “book” on freegans—I’m going to call it that, even though at this point it’s just a really, really long word or PDF document, for which this blog post is a shameless plug—is already free. Even were it to be picked up by a real live academic publisher, I still have no doubt that it would quickly be scanned and shared online, and I would make no effort to stop it.

Despite the fact that reality has gotten ahead of philosophy, I still feel like I increasingly need to think through my position on the question of “free.” I feel it both in general—with advocates for open access at my own university suggesting that publishing in pay-for-access journals is just dumb—and personally—as a number of voices have told me they assume that I would never try to sell a book on freegans. I’m thus starting to wonder about what it means that—as someone who expects his life’s work to consist mostly of reformatted word documents—everything I produce is ultimately going to be free.

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I should start by saying that the arguments for making academic products free to the public are, I think, particularly strong. We still have well-heeled institutions (universities and federal research councils) that are willing to pay (some of) us to produce knowledge and to contribute to journals as editors and reviewers. The open access advocates’ strongest argument (ironically made at the same time as we hear slogans like “information just wants to be free”) is that we’ve already paid for research with our tax dollars, so we shouldn’t have to pay for it again. I’m excited about experiments like Sociological Science, the new open-access sociological journal, not so much because I’m sure their model is the wave of the future (author fees for graduate students still are scary-high) but because I believe that experimentation is the only way to find out.

But this is emphatically not the position that most producers of cultural goods—musicians, artists, or authors are in. The other week, I read a New York Times editorial by Jeremy Rifkin who rosily declared that, “The inherent dynamism of competitive markets is bringing costs so far down that many goods and services are becoming nearly free, abundant, and no longer subject to market forces.” The “marginal cost revolution” (about which he is selling a book) has a fairly simple source. There is now a Napster for virtually anything that you can copy on a computer, and because copying a file doesn’t cost money, now books, movies, and music can be “free.”

I suppose I was most annoyed by Rifkin’s editorial because it conflated the “rise of free” with the “rise of anti-capitalism.” When I’ve been told that I really ought to make my book or anything else I write “free,” it’s usually couched in the assumption that “free” and “capitalism” are opposed to one another. But there is nothing inherently anti-capitalist about getting something for free. In fact, the “free” labor of the worker—that is, time spent producing things of value for which the worker is not commensurately paid—is at the root of all profits in a capitalist system.

So long as the things we need to survive—and I’m not talking about books on freegans here, although I do think my book is valuable, but food and housing and all that—are commodified and must be purchased, being told the things you produce are “free” is just another way of saying you are being exploited. And, unlike for academics, we don’t have any sort of public provisioning for the majority of cultural producers, and as such, for most of them, discovering that their products have “zero marginal cost” is not exactly a happy revelation.

And, of course, even as an academic, “free” sounds increasingly scary. When legislators see that students can now access Massive Open Online Courses courses for “free” (at least for the moment), it sounds like a great argument for further defunding public education. And when graduate students are expected to add more students to their sections without an increase of pay–an experience virtually any GSI at Berkeley can recount–they’re working for “free.” And I can’t help but think that the logical consequence of telling us that the books we write will be “free” is that eventually universities will feel they no longer have any obligation to pay us to produce them.

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Admittedly, this is all a bit of a straw-person argument. For most of the activists I know—and, especially, the freegans—“free” has a very different meaning. It has nothing to do with price or with the “marginal costs” of production. As I came to understand it, “free” meant that some things are too valuable to have a price—whether necessities like food and shelter or public goods like transportation, the arts, or knowledge. Sure, there were always dumpster divers who thought that wasted food was “free,” but the wiser freegans I knew always recognized that these things had a cost—in human labor or natural resources—which were real. “Free” was, in effect, a way of recognizing that all things have a cost, albeit one that is often poorly captured by “price.”

I’m not against “free.” I’ve read enough anthropology to know that gift economies in which goods and services are shared freely are not a utopia, but a part of the human historical experience and an honest possibility for the future. It’s more an issue of timing, or, you might say, a collective action problem. I’m reluctant to say it’s fine for someone to have free access to everything I produce until I have free access to what others produce. It makes very little sense for some types of things be “free” while others are commoditized. And, frankly, I’m far more concerned about “freeing” things that do have a marginal cost, like food or shelter. I don’t want to sound like those old commercials that said, “You wouldn’t steal a car—Piracy is not a victimless crime”; just that I’d like to be able to steal dinner along with my DVDs.

I didn’t find my book in a dumpster. It’s taken time and money and effort and love. Writing it has involved a great deal of lost opportunities and missed chances. It’s been made possible by the generosity of a host of people and institutions too numerous to name. But don’t worry, I’m not some dirty capitalist or luddite who has yet to get on the digital freedom bus. My book is “free.”

Career Changes?

“Well, do you at least know how to operate a pallet jack?”

I hesitate.  I have eight-and-one-third years of higher education under my belt.  I really should have a good answer to this question.  “I’m sure I’ll pick it up quickly”, I offer optimistically.

Last Tuesday was my first day at my new job—my first non-research-related job since I was the receptionist at a law office six years ago.  It’s been a tumultuous few weeks that have brought me to this point.  At the start of October, I was TAing an introductory sociology class, plugging away on a series of articles for publication, and preparing for my qualifying exams—and, I should add, unequivocally the most miserable I’ve ever been in my entire life.  So I decided to leave.  First I told people I was “dropping out”.  I’ve since graduated to “withdrawn” or, when I’m feeling particularly optimistic, “taking a sabbatical”.

The idea behind coming home was to give myself time to “get healthy”, but I quickly realized this was not an activity that could be blocked off on a day planner like “exercise” or “study”.  Casting about for meaningful things to do, I gravitated towards food, as I always have: with the freegans at Princeton, Food Justice at Oxford, and Food Not Bombs at Berkeley.  I filled out an online volunteer form for the Flagstaff Food Bank, noting with a bit of embarrassment, in response to a query about “available hours”, that I was free pretty much anytime.  Within 24 hours I got an enthusiastic call from a somewhat desperate volunteer coordinator and within 48 I was offered a part-time job.

Now I work in a warehouse.  I unload trucks coming in with donations, weigh pallets of surplus food, and assemble emergency food boxes.  Having spent the last six months gradually watching my capacity to do the things I enjoy and find meaning in wither away, there’s something rewarding and contemplative about spending four hours a day sorting out rotten mushrooms.  The cold of the refrigerator room gives me a much-needed jolt, and the Christian rock that blares over the loudspeaker provides me a strong incentive to get healthy and return to my old life.  And yes, I’ve learned how to operate a pallet jack—first a manual one and, today, a mighty and somewhat difficult to control electric one (with which I almost managed to precipitate my first workers’ comp claim).  Maybe forklifts are next.

That said, even in my current state, my goal is to progress as quickly as I can beyond moving around gaylords* of stale bread.  So when the Food Bank director announced on Friday that we would have a meeting about improving our operations, I was excited.  Perhaps I could put those years of higher education—which we discuss in the warehouse only in the context of making fun of my utter lack of practical knowledge—to some use!  I spent the weekend researching the academic literature on emergency food systems, and even dreamed up a small interview project to better understand the needs of our clientele.

On Monday, the time for the meeting came—and went.  I kept packing boxes and waiting for someone to come get me.  I finished my tasks for the day and wandered up to the front of the warehouse.  Not knowing the layout, I stumbled into a room where pretty much everyone else from the Food Bank was assembled.  “Can I help you?” my boss asked.  As it turns out, I wasn’t invited.

I’ve been having doubts for more than a year about academia.  I don’t know if those doubts have precipitated my depression or if depression has created the doubts; it doesn’t really matter, because it is increasingly hard for me to imagine myself “making it” as a professor.  But veering from that course, I’m quickly realizing, is not easy.  The internships and entry-level positions I’ve been looking at online are meant for people who are, well, younger.  And while I’ve gutted through the lowest eschelons of academia, I haven’t put in my time anywhere else.  So why would I get invited to a planning meeting, anyway: I’m just a guy who works in the warehouse.

* The name for large octagonal cardboard boxes.  You learn something new every day!

Reading Marx

Dick Walker talks like he knew Karl Marx personally.  “Man, Marx just couldn’t figure out what was going on with all this finance shit.  You can tell he just fucking hated it”, he tells us, as we are puzzling over our weekly assignment for his Das Kapital reading group.  He offers a bit of comfort for the confused: “Don’t worry, I had to read the whole thing through three or four times before I really understood it.”  Three or four times?  Marx’s magnum opus is painfully dense and, although it was only half finished, comes in at about 3,000 pages.  But there’s no doubt that Dick Walker has read it a bunch of times: his copy—an old edition, printed in the Soviet Union—is badly tattered, but contains years of annotations; a sign of a truly loved tome.

I started going to Dick Walker’s Capital Reading Group in the Geography Department this fall because, well, I was a grad student at Berkeley, and what could be more “Berkeley” than reading Marx?  The group was almost a caricature of itself.  We met in the Geography lounge, with a Brazilian Landless Movement flag and guitar with the words “This Machine Kills Fetishism” scrawled on it (get it?) hanging on the walls.  Others in the class seemed to hang on every one of Marx’s words, even when the arguments and evidence were obviously obsolete.  I remember one conversation with a classmate who seemed to suggest that the only reason we weren’t already living in a socialist utopia stemmed from our own inability to understand Marx’s brilliance.  The notion that Marx may have actually been wrong about some very important things—or that reading thousands of pages about capitalism wasn’t going to make capitalism disappear–had apparently not crossed our minds.

Meanwhile, outside the academia, real things were happening.  People were actually protesting capital and critiquing capitalism, and they didn’t need a reading group to figure out how to do it.  In September, there was an early protest held in San Francisco in solidarity with some naïve fools in New York who thought they were going to “Occupy Wall Street” (whatever that meant!).  A few of us sociologists decided we were going to ditch and go to it; some of the geographers we invited said they couldn’t because it overlapped with our reading group.  The moment evoked Marx’s own words: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world…the point is to change it.”  With a disdain for armchair radicalism of which I was confident Marx himself would approve, I quit going to class and started going to protests.

If my last post doesn’t give any indication, the last six months have been transformative, and the Alex of September feels very naïve by the standards of the Alex of April.  A short list of things about which I’ve drastically changed my views include “the police”, “academia”, “anarchism”, and, also, the “value” (so to speak) of reading Marx.  I’m not entirely sure why I went back to class this semester, but I did.  This time, I’ve joined my classmates in hanging on Marx’s words, trying to wrap my head around his elaborate system of circulating values and commodities.  I am no more convinced that knowing Marx is “useful” to me, either as an academic or an activist.  It’s the work itself—as a cultural and historical product—that draws me in, the very idea that someone could sit down and try to write a book with the absurd ambition of explaining the entire economic system in one go.  The fact that communism never “worked” doesn’t make Marx’s attempts to envision an alternative any less brave or elegant.

It suppose, then, it’s not just about the books, but Marx himself.  In sociology, we celebrate Marx as one of the earliest public sociologists, a man who worked outside the academy and was actively engaged in political projects.  But, in truth, Capital is the product of decades spent in quiet contemplation, pouring over ledgers and data in the British library.  There’s something in that which resonates with practically any social scientist: the tension between wanting to simply understand the way forces beyond our control shape the world, and the simultaneous desire to push those forces along.  As someone who spent the morning working on a theory paper in Berkeley and the afternoon protesting against capitalism in downtown Oakland, Marx’s dilemma resonates.

A recent hit-piece-cum-“report” on declining standards in the UC system by a right-wing think tank makes twenty-five separate references to “Marx” or “Marxism”.  Noting the “proliferation” of courses on Marx at UC Santa Cruz, they opine: “Adolescent Marxist nostalgia still evidently reigns on campus and impedes a return to reality”.  They’d be relieved to know that Professor Walker is retiring this year.  His replacement will likely be at the forefront of geography as a discipline, meaning that he or she will do fancy stuff with maps and quantitative data and not spend much time trying to figure out the true meaning of 150-year-old books.  For our part, none of us taking the class are likely to read Marx “three or four times”—the new logic of the university does not afford us time to do things that don’t look good on grant applications or spin into publications—and so its hard to see another reading group like this at Berkeley in the future.  It took me a while to come around, but I’ve realized that’s a sad thing.

In Between Protests, I Also Do Some Sociology

At long last, my first peer-reviewed academic publication is available online in the journal Ethnography, at least to those with access to an academic database.

I wrote this as my Junior Paper at Princeton, and I have to confess that my thinking on some of these issues has evolved and matured a bit.  Still, given the theme of this article – the meaning and power of dramatic, unconventional, non-institutional protest – now seems like a rather appropriate time to see it published.

To be Dambisa…

It’s not every day I have a chance to see one of Time’s “Most Influential People” (Mark Zuckerberg has not visited Oxford recently), so today I availed myself of an opportunity see Dambisa Moyo speak at the Rhodes House.  I’m fascinated by Dambisa Moyo because she has managed to take a topic no one cares about (international development), mix it with a rash and crazy idea (we should cut off all foreign aid to Africa within five years), back it up with some tired and discredited economic ideas (learned while working for Goldman Sachs) and turn it into a bestseller, Dead Aid.  In short, she’s an excellent model for any aspiring academic who wants to use an Oxford education and a love of obscure topics to advance substantive change: i.e. me.

Here’s the thing about Dead Aid, though: it’s a really bad book.  That is different from saying that it’s a really wrong book: my own ideas on foreign aid have evolved a lot since I last blogged about the book a year ago.  That said, this book is absolutely chocked full of nonsense.  Moyo writes—without a citation—that thanks to foreign aid poverty in Africa rose from 11% to 66% from 1970-1998.  Excuse me?  By whose measure was Africa’s poverty rate in 1970 equivalent to Germany’s in the present day?  At another point she writes that “Since the 1940s, approximately US $1 trillion of aid has been transferred from rich countries to Africa…This is nearly US $1000 for every man, woman, and child on the planet today.”  This makes sense if the world population is about 1/6th of its actual size, or if 5.8 billion people do not fall into the categories of “men”, “women”, and “children.”  As one of my professors described it, Dead Aid is a “not-particularly-well-done review of the tertiary* literature on foreign aid.”

Okay, I’ll admit these two are cheap shots, but the rest of the book is not any more coherent.  Moyo’s main thesis is that African nations should eliminate their dependence on foreign aid as a means of financing development… and replace it with a dependence on foreign bond markets.  Leaving aside the rosy experiences of Greece and Ireland with respect to private bonds, I am incredibly skeptical that there are many private lenders who want to give money to small African countries.  Her proposed solution is that large African countries, like South Africa, guarantee the loans of smaller ones.  You know, in the same way that you put your house up as collateral so someone living in a nearby town who you have never met can buy a new car.  What…?

Clearly, Moyo’s ascension to public-intellectual superstar has to do with something other than the rigor of her ideas.  Nearly every magazine piece on her mentions that she is an African woman.  Not just any African woman, but a beautiful, Oxford-educated, black African woman.  I struggle with this.  It is incredibly important that African voices be heard in debates about Africa.  Nonetheless, I don’t think “being African” grants any special privilege to make up non-sensical “facts” just because they are about Africa.**  Could Moyo be getting away with shoddy scholarship just because she was born in Zambia?

Fortunately, though, by going to her talk, I feel like I no longer have to answer that question.  If I had to offer one explanation for her success, I would now guess that it’s because she is an objectively incredible presenter and public speaker.  It had nothing to do with her identity and everything to do with the fact that she was the most articulate advocate for a controversial position that I’ve heard speak in a long time.  And, I realized, people pay attention to Moyo because she has organized both her books and talks around a single compelling and seductive narrative.

To Moyo, everything is about incentives.  There are no “bad guys” in the story of African development; just misguided Western donors providing mountains of aid, African leaders responding rationally to the incentives for corruption that aid creates, and the unintended consequences for poverty that entails.  All we have to do is change the carrots and sticks of the development game and, viola, problems solved!  Here narrative is all the more compelling because it suggests that, for this to happen, all we as Westerners need to do is stop giving aid.  In short, we can do good by doing nothing!  This textbook economist view of the world is so powerful that it applies everywhere: Moyo’s most recent book, How The West Was Lost, tells us about how we Northerners have screwed up our own societies by not obeying the golden rule of the all-rational free market.

Now that I have decided to pursue an academic career, I’ve been putting a lot of thought into how to make an impact—and why economists are inevitably called up by the New York Times to comment on popular issues, and not sociologists.  I am reminded that it’s because a view of the world that reduces messy things like history, values, and politics to rational economic stimulus-response is convenient for policy-makers and straightforward enough for public consumption.  We pay for our own accuracy by sacrificing our own relevance.  I can’t help but wonder if that’s actually a good trade-off, if the terrain of relevant social science should really be so easily conceded to people like Moyo just so we can be a bit more airtight and confident about the articles we publish and no one reads.

At least, this is what I will be debating when, at 65, I open up Time’s “Most Influential Persons” issue and realize that I haven’t made the list.  Again.

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* Historian friends: what the hell is a tertiary source?

** Being the lead singer of U2, though, does give you the right to say whatever you want about international development and have it be accepted as true.

News from the Front

Oh hai.

If you haven’t heard, there’s a war on higher education going on.  As nearly every social service that makes civilization, well, civilized is currently up for debate, it’s not particularly surprising that university funding hasn’t really made it on to most peoples’ radars.  But in Britain, the restructuring of higher education that is going on is both profound and disturbing, and today, we actually did something about it.

I’ve complained about the Oxford system—and, by comparison, vaunted the U.S. one—many times on this blog.  That said, one thing that is positively amazing about Oxford is that it is both elite and public; students here pay a pittance of the actual cost of their education.  This is not some historical idiosyncracy, like Latin grace and sub-fusc.  It’s the result of a conscious realization made by the British people, at some point, that universities like Oxford serve the public good, and thus deserve public funding.  The new ConDem government here, however, has rejected that and decided to bring the university under the yoke of the all-powerful market.  The future of Oxford rests in American innovations like crushing graduate debt and insanely high fees.

To some extent, I don’t have a dog in this fight: I’m fully funded, and I’m likely escaping to a private university with a cushy endowment next year.  Even the proposed 80% cut in teaching funding isn’t likely to hit me (80% less of zero teaching is still zero teaching, after all).  While I can escape British policy, though, I can’t escape the ideology.  It is not just in the U.K., after all, that policymakers seem to believe the notion that the life of the mind is not worth very much, or that there is no use in research without an immediate economic benefit.  Self-interest has never been my thing anyway, of course, and it’s precisely because “elites” know that they’ll still be able to get an education in the post-public university system that these cuts are happening in the first place.  So, naturally, I laced up my blackspot sneakers, and set out for another protest.

I can’t decide whether turnout was incredibly depressing or extraordinary.  I reached Cornmarket Street and found six-hundred Oxford students out of their libraries, and by the looks of it, out of their comfort zones.  I doubt six-hundred Princeton students could be convinced to protest against grade deflation, much less give a shit about public education.  But then I did the math, and realized that 600 is less than 10% of student body—so what are the others doing?  They can’t all have trust funds covering their fees, can they?  Or do they just not realize how insidious all of this is?

The Socialist Worker’s Party was there—they always are—with a handful of provacateurs (“I think I met you at the Afghanistan protest in London”) and a set of pre-fab signs.  Did the Oxford students holding the placards they distributed actually know they were currently advocating for a worker’s revolution and a general strike?  Evidently some did, as I saw people gradually pulling out pens and changing their signs.  Here we show our true colors: “Free education” became “Fair and reasonably priced education.”  “I oppose all cuts” is edited to “I oppose all cuts to my university.”  And, “Down with the Browne Report” is mealymouthed into “I support some elements of the Browne Report, just not the rise in fees” (no, really, someone wrote that).  The war on higher education only matters when it hits us; and even then, it only matters to six-hundred of us.

The protest was on the road to being decidedly, well, pitiful, until the police intervened.  Our mob of humanities majors and philosophy dons wanted to walk to High Street; they wanted us to take a seat around Radcliffe Camera, contemplate our navels for a few minutes, and go home.  A few of us decided that we would go to High Street anyway; they formed a line, and we did too.  A few seconds later, I was on the other side of a row of bobbies, yelling to tentative looking Oxford Students, “Don’t worry, you’ll still get an investment banking job if you come over.”  And, then, they did, and the police parted.

For a moment, we were unstoppable.  The news reports will make us look like a bunch of whiny overprivileged kids fighting to keep our silver spoons firmly planted in our mouths.  They might be right.  But when I am seventy years old living in a hut somewhere in the forests of Northern Finland, trying to avoid the conservative dystopia of the new dark ages, I will take my grandchild on me knee and say, “Yes, when they finally put the nail in the coffin of social democracy, I fought back, and I don’t regret it for a minute.”