The special role of students in fostering rebellion and radical politics, both of the left and right, now evident in China, South Korea and other countries, is an old and continuing story.
Aristotle noted two and a half millenia ago: Youth "have exalted notions, because they have not yet been humbled by life or learnt its necessary limitations; moreover their hopeful disposition makes them think themselves equal to great things - and that means exalted notions. All their mistakes are in the direction of doing things excessively and vehemently. They love too much, hate too much, and the same with everything else."The annals of the American Revolution offer the first record of American students as a protest group.
In Czarist Russia, the schools were described as "the hotbeds of radicalism, and the higher the school, the more imbued with the revolutionary spirit the young people" from the late 1880s on. In China, undergraduates played a major role in the downfall of the Manchu Dynasty at the turn of the century, and again in 1919 and in the 30's.
Historians of youth movements have noted the similarities in expressive style, in romanticism and in idealism that have occurred among groups that vary considerably in their social and political views. German students were largely supportive of different forms of right wing nationalism from the mid-19th century through the early (1931) majority support in student council elections for the Nazis. The Nazis sought to build on the history of pure anti-system, anti-adult youth movements by alluding to themselves as such a movement, as did the Italian Fascists, whose party anthem was "Giovinezza, Giovinezza" - "Youth, Youth."
The sources of a massive outbreak of student activism such as occurred in China in 1919, in Germany in the 1930s, in the United States and elsewhere during the Vietnam War, and again in China today, obviously lie with crises in the larger political scene that stimulate opposition. Such developments, however, do not explain why students have played such an important role in stimulating protest.
Much of the writings on student and youth politics has been an insistence that youth still resemble Aristotle's portrait.
Some psychologists see a special contemporary disposition toward excessive anxiety and commitment in the strains of adolescence, a period that in modern society with its prelongation of education and career preparation lasts into the 20s for college students.
Students tend, as Max Weber suggested, to develop an ethic of "absolute ends" rather than of "responsibility." They tend to be more committed to ideals than to institutions, hence events that point up the gap between ideals and reality stimulate them to action."
Compared to other groups, students simply have fewer responsibilities in the form of obligations to families and jobs. Thus, punitive sanctions against activism are less likely to affect students than those with greater responsibility to others.
Moreover, students remain adolescents or juveniles sociologically, and they're often explicitly or implicitly treated as such legally, particularly when they violate the law. In many societies, such as China's, a large number of the students involved in politically or otherwise motivated infractions are literally the children of the elite, a fact that serves to reduce the will to punish them. Students, as Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a leader of the French uprising in 1968, pointed out, are under less pressure to conform than other strata and therefore feel more obligation to press for what they believe.