With the long history of student activism, it is only proper to say that it has created its own civilizational values. Students have long put themselves in political, economic, social, and environmental struggles, be it on the university level or national level. There are stories about how students went against the totalitarian regime or demanded democratic rights from oppressive states. Closer to our very home, Malaysia, students are the one becoming the third party fighting for more accessible education, reduction of poverty, just wealth distribution and of course, students’ own rights.
The oppression of the past put on them through state-sanctioned acts has been resolved. The chains had been broken. Better educated modern-day students now know more of their rights compared to their predecessors. Having knowledge of their rights, of course they demand them. A just education system can only be established through the granting and preservation of those rights. Rights for freedom of associations, freedom from improper academic evaluation, freedom of inquiry and expression, freedom to exercise rights as citizens of the state and many more unlisted rights.
However, the education system, albeit an unjust one, cannot be created without students performing their duty. Entitlement towards these rights does not appear in vacuum. There are relations that give birth to rights and duty plays the major role. Student activism, or just student lives, must be understood in this relation.
Universities and schools are established (supposedly) to create holistic students – to develop functioning members of society. However, these institutions are now being appreciated only in terms of their marketability aspect. Not only this is in the view of the students, but the institutions themselves. This creates a utilitarian view of educational institutions. This is due to the imbalances of the duty-right orientation of students’ worldview.
For us to understand how the imbalances affect our worldview, we will discuss simply in terms of excesses. The excesses of a right-oriented worldview will give birth to taxing students, whose lives are characterized through demands and lack the sense of responsibility. Students with this view are not holistic nor have the understanding how rights work. As stated, rights do not appear in vacuum. Rights of a particular group – students, in our very case – derived from the very acts they perform, their duties and responsibilities. Farmers, for example, would not dream of having students’ rights. Their very duty as farmers brought them to a different path which has its own hindrances thus constituting the need for farmers’ own sets of rights to protect them.
The same is applicable for students. The word ‘student’ itself bears a conceptual grid which consists of what makes a student, what surroundings nurture students and what responsibilities and duties should be performed first before one can be considered as student. The essence of a student must be fulfilled before the existence of a student. Only after one is ‘a student’, in the most comprehensive meaning of the word, one is entitled for the rights of students.
This brings us to another question; what are the duties of the students? It is common to think that students’ duty is to study. It is even in the word ‘student’. Well, it is true but only in the narrowest sense of the word. Students should see themselves as a group inside a wider society, which means they must act in a way that contributes to the society. Now, merely studying would not contribute as much to others as it is to the students themselves. A functioning group of a society must engage. Engagement varies according to the capability of the students and the demanding surrounding.
Globally, in the past, students reacted to all sorts of issues and acted according to the demanding surrounding. In the fascist Nazi regime, students organized underground protest to free their state from the oppressive totalitarian administration. In China, the Tiananmen Square was a memoir of how students organized protests for a more democratic state as Deng Xiaoping permitted economic freedom without political freedom. These are the demanding situations. The students then performed their duty as part of a larger society in hope that the outcomes would eventually uphold the students’ rights.
Those stories are hymns of the past. How about our current days? What are the demanding situations? To answer that, one must investigate what troubles our society. The answers could be hundreds, maybe thousands. Students might have to choose which battle that they want to and are capable of performing. In my eyes, the most prevailing and demanding situation is poverty, and I will use this as an example on how current-day students can act to fulfil their duties.
Poverty is a systemic problem. The theory that poverty is an effect due to lack of hard work had long been refuted. As it is systemic, there are two ways in which students can act. The first way is to solve it on a case-by-case basis. This is the most common way. Students organized their own movements, collecting funds and providing it to targeted recipients. This noble act is one type of how students perform their duties. Another form of duty is for students to act as a pressure group towards the responsible authorities to solve as poverty is a systemic problem, demanding a change in the unjust system itself. This, too, constitutes duty.
The duty can be fulfilled without obstruction when students are protected from authorities while executing it. This is where rights come by. Rights are the protection imposed on students because the act of performing their duties demands it. Without fulfilling the duties, the establishing of rights would have no meaning and might not even be appreciated and understood. With great rights come great duties.
Duty must be carried out for rights to be justified. The balance of the duty-right worldview eventually gives rise to students who will do justice to the community according to their role in it. Society, in turns, will protect the rights demanded by the students as it will give freedom for students to exercise their duties. Duties and rights complement each other. Without duty, rights are not justified; and without rights, duties cannot be performed conscientiously.
From each according to his/her duty, to each according to his/her rights.
By: Aliff Naif, Chairman of Congress IIUM