by Craig Crosby
(also see Five Who Remade American Culture, by Victoria A. Brownworth)
“The most I had ever done was very conventional actions toward change, like writing letters,” said McGarvey, a senior environmental policy major. “I had not done any kind of social protest. I was a little dubious about what would happen. It was a lot more than I had hoped for. I was very surprised.”
McGarvey’s experience is exactly what Unity College associate professor Kathryn Miles had in mind when she first developed the focus for the fall semester’s American literature class. From Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau through speeches by Martin Luther King Jr. and Edward Abbey’s “The Monkey Wrench Gang,” the students read the best-known literature of social protest and civil disobedience ever written in this country.
More than just reading, however, the 18 students in Miles’ class had to identify an issue, develop plans to effect change through an act of protest and then carry it out. Some chose well-traveled roads, such as the war in Iraq, while others were moved by the more obscure, such as a Maine law that prohibits owning exotic reptiles.
The project was designed to let the students put into practice the philosophies they read in the books, Miles said. McGarvey, for example, based much of her protest on Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in which King writes, “one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust law.”
“Now, more than ever, we can’t have higher education in a high tower,” Miles said. “I really wanted them to do something to make a difference. I feel like we don’t have the luxury of keeping academia abstract. I feel like we have to apply it and do something. I think that, by and large, we as a culture, and this age group, tends to be fairly politically apathetic. Sitting back and complaining is just not an option.”