The Mifflin Street Block Party has become a right of passage for many students at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Think what you may of it, it's a persistent event and has proceeded annually on the first Saturday in May since the 1960's. Although attempts have been made by the city and business interests to co-opt it, it will continue to take place with or without sanction.
The party had its origins in the sixties as an anti-war protest against the school's complicity with the military-industrial complex -- particularly in regard to the Dow Chemical corporation which was recruiting students to make napalm and agent orange. Additionally, the event became a dance party in the streets to show solidarity with the rebellion in France in '68. Police responded violently to the party, as is their wont, and the students fought back. This is undoubtedly part of the reason why Madison earned the reputation as being the "Berkeley of the midwest."
As the party continued to manifest annually, thanks to the rebellious spirit of youthful students, it continued to have political messages tied with it. For example, in 1984, a commemorative t-shirt design was opposed to U.S. involvement with Nicaragua. And, of course, this was fitting for an event such as this one in a progressive city such as Madison.
However, over the years, the authorities have attempted to co-opt the party. The city has given tenuous approval (of an event it couldn't stop) and businesses have been allowed to set up stages and push corporate booze. It might even be argued that the city and the university has encouraged drunkenness and apolitical revelry at this event. This is effectively what has happened (by design or not).
And, when you really think about it, the University and City officials have an interest in maintaining a culture of drunken revelry -- not that I'm opposed to that revelry either, mind you. But, as the economic engine of the city, those institutions may not necessarily be opposed to drunken students taking 5 years to graduate (or more) -- as long as those students keep paying their tuition fees.
But even without such an insidious conspiracy, what kind of product is the University offering? Is it really worth the decades of debt that so many young people now face? Increasingly, that answer seems to be "no." Recent polls have indicated that the majority of recent graduates do not find employment in their fields of study (if they find work at all) and many are underemployed. Even when a fitting job is found... the debt often remains an incredible burden.
The rise of tuition costs has far outpaced inflation and the effect of this has had many negative effects -- not all of which are obvious. Because of the incredible cost of higher education, students are no long as able to question the authority of the evermore corporatized campus administration. Walk-outs and involvement with campus protests are much more risky and potentially expensive. So students are in a catch-22. The administration can continuously push for harsher campus policies and students can't risk their academic careers in protest because they're heavily invested, indebted even, and they are forced to think more about their future careers in the technocratic system (which may never even pan out for them). This effect even extends into their professional lives because the student debt prevents them from challenging their employers over unethical practices. Essentially... higher tuition makes indentured servants of students whether they ever reap any rewards from the system or not.
For these reasons, and many more, I am not incredibly opposed to the students at the University of Wisconsin (or any other university) attending an event like the Mifflin Street Block Party. Obviously, the worst drunken behavior is to be frowned upon -- but that type of behavior occurs anyway, and even at university-approved events (like the football games). So... it was no surprise when the UW Madison Dean of Students, Lori Berquam, was so panned for telling students to "don't go." But, ironically, her condescending message was potentially the best thing to happen for the Mifflin Street Block Party in years. Her video message served to inspire an anti-establishment sentiment that had been waning over the years. Of course her disapproval was going to be met with mockery by the student body! The event has never really been sanctioned by the University, or the city officials, and never needs to be.
And why should the students of UW Madison respect the administration?! The officials of the the university have been making a mint by corralling young people into debt without much promise for any real compensation. It's an evermore apparent reality that university students are being conned into buying an increasingly expensive and faulty product. At the same time... corporations are subsidizing the curriculum and the Madison isthmus has become one of the most policed jurisdictions in the country. Essentially, the pitch of UW Madison should be this... "Come buy an expensive degree that will hardly guarantee you employment, go into incredible debt without having anything tangible to show for it, and stay in line... or else."
So the question is not whether students should gather and party at the Mifflin Street Block Party, but rather... why? Frankly, I'm not opposed to students merely gathering to defend their right to party. However, that motive can undermined and self-defeating. But we can look to the past and see ample reason for having a party in protest. Moreover, we can look at contemporary student movements around the country, and around the world, which are rising up, en masse, to challenge their university systems. Students in Montreal, Canada, have been on strike for weeks now and have rallied with tens-of-thousands in the streets -- all because of a proposed increase in tuition to US$2500/semester. Last year, in the UK, students made international news with their protests against anti-education policies (after storming the Tory party headquarters the year before). In Chile there have been major protests over the cost of education. In California the students have occupied buildings and suffered police brutality in their efforts to defend access to affordable public education. Similar protests have occurred in South Korea, Argentina, and elsewhere.
Madison, with a history of progressive and radical protests, seems like the next logical place for people to stand up and defend their rights to an affordable education. Last year's mass protests at the capitol prove that Madison can bring people into the streets. And many of the issues related to that protest are incredibly relevant to the students as well -- with the Governor proposing $250 million dollars in cuts to the the UW system over the current two year period. Governor Walker also proposes to remove Madison from the UW system while taking immediate personal control over the Board of Trustees by appointing 11 of the 21 members. So... the question is whether students want to allow the University (along with all other levels of education) to suffer massive budget cuts while becoming evermore corporatized. If not... this alone might be a good reason to protest. And if you do protest... you'll have the support of people all across the state, country, and world.
The choice is yours, as students, whether or not you want to tolerate the status quo or stand up for yourselves and your future. And you should be aware that the issues raised here are but a small sample of the growing problems you will face in your lifetimes. So a revived spirit of protest around the Mifflin Street Block Party should only be the start of radical changes that need to take place. Rising tuition costs are actually just second world problems, at worst. If you want a better world, and a better future, you'll need to take a stand and fight for all your rights.
If you've enjoyed this article... you may also like a previous article I've written (on similar subjects) entitled Values of a College Education. And, as always, I hope you'll consider sharing this article and subscribing to the blog. Cheers!