The Times They Are a-Changin’: Promoting Learning Beyond the Classroom and Social Activism

Published in:

A National Symposium

November 20–21, 2009

Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse College, and Spelman College
Atlanta, Georgia

The history of social movements at the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras (UPR-RP) reflects the students’ interest in using disruptive tactics, such as protests and class stoppages, and non-disruptive tactics, such as hunger strikes, to enact social, political, environmental, and economic change at the UPR-RP and in Puerto Rico. Some of the most notable social activist events involving UPR-RP students are the following:

  1. In 1919, several students protested against the intervention of the United States in Puerto Rico and were expelled.
  2. In April 1948, students protested when the Rector denied them permission to use the theater for a seminar with political leader Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos. Hundreds of students were arrested and four hundred were expelled.
  3. October 7, 1969, marked the first day of a 28-day hunger strike in protest of the presence of the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) on campus.
  4. On March 4, 1970, a confrontation between “independentistas” students, the ROTC, and the police occurred when several students tried to burn the ROTC building. More than 100 students were wounded and one died.
  5. In November 1981, striking students disrupted classes to protest a tuition increase from $5 to $15 a credit hour for undergraduates. The strike lasted for five months.
  6. On September 1, 1999, about 300 students protested against the U.S. military’s bombing practice on the neighboring island of Vieques.
  7. On October 15, 2009, hundreds of students joined the national strike in Puerto Rico to protest the government’s laying off of thousands of workers.

Even with this strong record of social action, some students at the UPR-RP do not see the relevance of examining social activism or mobilizing for effective change. As a professor of the UPR-RP, I look for ways to facilitate my students’ interest in social activism and to foster their development as agents of social change. Social activism usually becomes substantial to students when they link social injustices to their communities and become conscious of using their education to effect societal problems. Educators can assist in this process in several ways. One significant learning tool is to encourage students to participate in social movement activities, especially with community organizations. By encouraging social activism outside of the traditional borders of the academy, professors can follow educator Peter Mayo’s principle of transforming education:

…we should be concerned with engaging in educational processes that are not meant to consolidate “what is” but are driven by a vision of “what should and can be.” In short, … we need to retain an emancipatory vision of education, one that reflects the will to contribute to the creation of a world which, in [Brazilian educator and theorist Pablo] Freire’s words, is “menos feio, menos malvado, menos desumano” [less ugly, less cruel, less inhumane]. (42)

In order to stimulate students’ involvement with social activism, professors can design their course to fulfill this purposei. In particular, they can have engaging discussions with students on social movements and public participation by assigning reading material such as Sidney Tarrow’s The New Transnational Activism (2005), David S. Meyer’s The Politics of Protest: Social Movements in America (2007), and Thomas Ehrlich’s Civic Responsibility and Higher Education (2009); giving homework assignments such as writing protest letters, researching social issues, or creating a social activism website; having classroom activities such as debatesii or guest speakers; showing documentaries such as FLOW-For Love of Water (2008) and Food, Inc. (2009); and arranging field trips. Some professors may also incorporate a group project, in which students organize and participate in a social activism event and present their work to their peers and community. The overall outcome of social activism allows for students not only to discover the social issues which shape their world, but also to feel empowered to work on the solutions. As Herbert J. Rubin and Irene S. Rubin note in Community Organizing and Development (1992), empowerment plays a main role in facilitating social activism: “Empowerment is the sense of efficacy that occurs when people realize they can solve the problems they face and have the right to contest unjust conditions” (62) and “to achieve empowerment is to recognize that the personal hurt is socially caused and remediable through joint action” (64).

While supporting social movement participation inside and outside the classroom, educators may encounter various challenges from students. In particular, students may resist becoming involved in social activist events or may become overwhelmed by the number of social problems. In this case, students may refuse to accept the concepts of social activism and become disengaged from critiquing societyiii. Educators may also encounter overzealous students who become “caught up” in protesting and forget the overall purpose of social movements. Moreover, educators may have students who become disappointed when their social activism does not generate the desired change.

The broader goal of promoting social activism beyond the classroom is to change the assumptions of traditional education structures and the existing tendency for students to become socially disengaged beings. To this end, educators facilitate new learning experiences for students, especially to achieve social justice.


iFor additional points of view on aspects of this issue, see Cornelius 190-97 and Lofland 389-94.

iiAccording to Jill Marshall and Ana Maria Klein in “Lessons in Social Action: Equipping and Inspiring Students to Improve Their World,” classroom debate is an “effective classroom strategy that promotes civic engagement” (220).

iiiPhilip G. Altbach states in “Student Power: Politics and Revolution” that “students are expected to attend university to study and not to engage in revolutionary activity” (57).


Altbach, P. G. (1999.) Student Power: Politics and Revolution. Change. 31(5): 52, 57.

Cornelius, D. (1998.) Walking the Walk: Socializing Students to Social Activism. Teaching Sociology. 26: 190-97.

Lofland, J. (1996.) Students’ Case Studies of Social Movements: Experiences with an Undergraduate Seminar. Teaching Sociology. 24: 389-94.

Marshall, J., & Klein, A. (2009). Lessons in Social Action: Equipping and Inspiring Students to Improve Their World. Social Studies. 100(5): 218-21.

Mayo, P. (2003). A Rationale for a Transformative Approach to Education. Journal of Transformative Education. 1(1): 38-57.

Rubin, H. J., & Rubin, I.S. (1992.) Community Organizing and Development. 2nd ed. New York: Macmillan.

Engagement through Intergroup Dialogues. Group Processes and Intergroup Relations. 6(1): 111-128.

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Spring 2010: Challenge as Opportunity: The Academy in the Best and Worst of Times