Did College Create Occupy Wall Street?

Jason Fertig

Much has already been written about OWS, but to this professor one piece stands out in particular – and it's not Ann Coulter calling the movement the Flea Party.  Lost amidst the comments by politicians and pundits that support or refute the movement to serve political ends was a New York Times article titled “For Some, Wall Street Is Main Street,” which featured a protester “guide” for finding places to eat, shower, and obtain other necessities. What is really telling about the information handed out is that it does not simply map out the location of porta-potties, but rather it encourages protesters to take liberties with nearby establishments:

Welcome to Liberty Plaza: Home of Occupy Wall Street. After you’ve dined, feel free to refresh yourself in the restrooms of neighboring businesses like Burger King and McDonald’s without feeling obligated to buy anything.

I find this disgusting, and I am not referring to where the Times notes “that a maintenance worker at the [local] McDonald’s said that in recent days he had been forced to clean the bathroom every five minutes.”

Whether OWS is a leftist Tea Party is of no interest to me, beyond the observation that most Tea Party participants clean up after themselves and go back to their regular lives after they make their point. What is worth noting though is that OWS contains many who practice the narcissism and moral relativism that stigmatizes the Millennial generation.

The college educated portion of the Occupy crowd most likely aced an ethics course or two because their behavior fits in line with the progressive message that sound ethical behavior involves having the correct position on social issues rather than focusing on individual character development. This was evident in a study that reported that individuals who saw themselves as environmentally conscious were more likely to steal.

I'm careful to stress with my students that very few people are saintly 100% of the time. I do my best to be a positive influence, but I know my limits. I cannot “teach ethics” in 15 weeks; I am just one influence on students' lives in addition to their parents, friends, community, church, etc. But I can create an environment that allows students to think about situations that reflect gray areas.

For example, I teach students that they can enhance their moral development if they ethically frame their everyday consumer behavior. I challenge students to reflect on such behaviors as (1) renting DVDs from Netflix and ripping them (2) playing with electronics at Best Buy and asking for information from store salesmen, all while knowing that they, as the consumer, will purchase a product from Amazon, or (3) reading full books at a bookstore, but not buying them.

Reading about a business’s decision to install solar panels is not the only way to teach about a multiple stakeholder approach. As silly as it may sound, I want to invest money in a company run by an individual who thinks about whether he owes a store anything in exchange for using its restroom.

Beyond the explicit narcissism, the lack of an overall mission for the OWS movement is also troubling. Yes, I’ve seen that renowned list of demands. But, those demands were somewhat “officially retracted.” The administrator of occupywallst.org noted above that list:

This is not an official list of demands. This is a forum post submitted by a single user and hyped by irresponsible news/commentary agencies like Fox News and Mises.org.  This content was not published by the OccupyWallSt.org collective, nor was it ever proposed or agreed to on a consensus basis with the NYC General Assembly. There is NO official list of demands.

Everyone knows that the Tea Party wants smaller government. But this protest that has carried on for weeks and has inspired several imitations, has no collective message. Incidentally,  this is not the first time that I have criticized Millennials for lacking a coherent message.

I present this “so what?” message numerous times per semester to college students when they write essays for me. Aside from flagging atrocious grammar, my most frequent piece of negative feedback for students is, “what’s your point?” Part of the ever-prevalent “write like you talk” faux pas that most students practice is a poorly organized and rambling message. This incoherence is caused by numerous factors such as a lack of recreational reading, a lack of consistent writing feedback, and an environment where professors give credit to students who submit a jumbled message on essay exams because of time pressure. Thus, it should be no surprise that this movement that consists of many college students and recent college graduates cannot get a coherent message out there – they have never learned how to do so. 

Yet, as someone who makes his living educating, I would like this movement to stay around because it will make my job easier – I will need less time to create examples about what happens when people fail to grow up and take on adult responsibilities. The message-less protests in Zuccotti Park and other areas around the globe reinforce the hypothesis that adolescence now lasts until 28. In turn, I agree with those who suggest that these activists need to occupy the business end of a cash register or lawnmower. After all, Steve Jobs, Warren Buffett, and Mary Kay Ash didn’t need to occupy a sleeping bag or blow loudly into a vuvuzela to reach their levels of success.

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