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Freedom's Web: Student Activism in an Age of Cultural Diversity

By Robert A. Rhoads
The Johns Hopkins University Press (http://www.press.jhu.edu/press)
312 Pages
2000 paperback
ISBN: 0-8018-6411-9
$17.95

Reviewed by

David A. Reichard

Sonoma State University

This book is an attempt to understand how and why progressive student activism re-emerged on college campuses in the United States during the 1990s. Arguing for the emergence of what he calls "a Multicultural Student Movement," Robert A. Rhoads offers an in-depth look at many of those movements-at their internal dynamics, their historical contexts, and their relationships with each other and with student movements of the 1960s. "The Multicultural Student Movement of the 1990s," as Rhoads maintains, "reflects both the changing face of the American college student and the general nature of student culture as it has evolved over the years" (p. 28). Rhoads believes that the re-emergence of progressive student activism in the 1990s can be explained by looking at who, where, and why protests developed on various campuses across the nation. He maintains that the successes of the student movements of the 1960s paved the way for more diverse student populations and inspired subsequent generations of students. Rhoads views the student protests of the 1990s in the context of the changing demographics of U.S. college students during the decade, particularly with regard to class, race, ethnicity, national origin, gender, and sexual orientation.

As the "faces" of students became more diverse, so did the issues of concern. In addition to these historical and demographic shifts, he suggests that a changing social, political, and economic context gave the immediate impetus for a new kind of student activism in the 1990s. Looking back on the 1980s, for example, he notes, "We get a sense of the increasing resentment and hostility among underrepresented groups and women. The ideals and goals envisioned during the decade of unrest [the 1960s] had been supplanted by conservative economic, political and social policies…" (p. 58). This changing material context made progressive student activism happen.

Rhoads organizes his book around discussions of "student demonstrations," which he defines as "visible public protests organized by students to call attention to a particular concern or set of concerns" (p. vii). He chooses this focus in order to understand why unrest on college campuses increased during the 1990s compared to the relatively quiet previous two decades. Rather than focus broadly on the almost 200 student demonstrations that he documents during the period of 1992-1997, Rhoads profiles five specific demonstrations in detail: the student/community movement to create a Chicano/a Studies department at UCLA (Chapter Three), a student strike to preserve the all-women undergraduate student population at Mills College (Chapter Four), the struggle to preserve a tuition program for American Indian students at Michigan State (Chapter Five), the emergence of gay liberation student politics at Penn State (Chapter Six), and student organizing to challenge President Francis Lawrence's public statements at Rutgers that African-American students were genetically inferior (Chapter Seven). Rhoads' sources include ethnographic research, oral interviews, published contemporaneous accounts, newspapers, and other community resources. He largely, though not exclusively, focuses on how students understood their activism in their own terms and asserts that "human actions such as participating in student demonstrations need to be interpreted for the meaning that such activities hold for students' lives" (p. x). Finally, Chapter Eight attempts to weave together these diverse examples with other cases of student demonstrations in the U.S. to develop a larger framework for understanding why seemingly diverse student demonstrations emerged with such force in the 1990s.

A major strength of this book is Rhoads' attempt to help us understand just what the impact of multiculturalism-- or more precisely the changing multicultural make-up of college students-- has meant on college campuses. By profiling how some students "walk the talk" of multiculturalism, he questions the contention that identity politics have fractured progressive political action on campuses. Rather, he asks us to consider how the diverse multicultural identities of students have informed their political action and have enabled some students to organize across such differences. Forming coalitions, working together through collaboration, and building bridges, progressive students in the 1990s "joined arms" in a process Rhoads documents in several cases. Moreover, he gives a wonderful sense of the wide range of issues and tactics favored by these students, especially with regard to how their specific histories informed their actions. The qualitative approach that Rhoads uses facilitates an engagement with the content he wishes us to consider. The narrative style makes the book generally readable and engaging for an undergraduate audience. Faculty offering courses on politics, social movements, youth and society, multiculturalism, gender studies, and ethnic studies should consider this text, which could be divided easily to cover different sections of a course.

Rhoads' approach nevertheless raises some critical questions. He often brackets discussions of the students' experiences within an analysis of social theory. This stylistic approach, while enhancing his empirical analysis, sometimes results in choppy text. Faculty might find that some undergraduates, especially those unfamiliar with social theory, might find the book difficult to follow. More significantly, however, Rhoads claims that seemingly disparate examples of student demonstrations make up what he calls a Multicultural Student Movement. He premises this claim, in part, on the notion that progressive students have developed a sort of "collective consciousness," often in reaction to conservative government and social policies since the 1980s. Yet much of Rhoads' evidence does not fully explain how such a collective consciousness actually emerged. Rhoads himself seeks to account for students' "multiple realities." But how did those "multiple realities" become "collective?" Furthermore, Rhoads mentions that some students have organized in opposition to progressive student activists. The question remains whether a greater understanding of conservative student organizing would enhance Rhoads' claim that a progressive collective consciousness emerged in the 1990s. Making such comparisons might add greater depth to our understanding of the larger context in which progressive student organizing happened. Moreover, did the student activists of the 1990s actually see themselves as part of a larger unified movement? Rhoads seems to suggest that because many of these different student activists drew inspiration from the student movements of the 1960s they necessarily formed a single new movement in the 1990s. Did a shared consciousness of history enhance student activist's relationship with each other in the 1990s, especially across the diverse campuses of the U.S.? In other words, what exactly is the "collective" we are talking about?

Despite these questions, I found the book engaging. Faculty easily could use Freedom's Web as a main or supplementary text in a course. Students will appreciate the book's focus on the experiences of students' themselves, especially progressive student activists, who would gain a broader historical context for their own political activity on today's campuses. Overall, this is a useful and welcome addition to the scholarly examination of student activism on U.S. college campuses in the late 20th century.

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Posted November 16, 2001

All material appearing in this journal is subject to applicable copyright laws.
Publication in this journal in no way indicates the endorsement of the content by the California State University, the Institute for Teaching and Learning, or the Exchanges Editorial Board.
©2001 by David A. Reichard

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