The American belief that education transmits democratic ideals to a new generation is as old as the republic. Throughout the nineteenth century examples in secondary schools and colleges can be found of students taking on responsibilities for the functioning of their institutions. The widespread expansion of student government began at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century.
In colleges the impulse came from students' beliefs that they should be involved in the aspects of college life which most affected them. Advocates of Progressive-era political and educational reform, meanwhile, saw training young people in the practicalities of democratic citizenship as an answer to a political system they feared was dominated by "bosses." The school, as an increasingly universal experience, seemed the logical site for such instruction.
Adult proponents saw student government as an extension of the progressive educational concept of learning by doing. They assailed authoritarian school systems and argued that only if students experienced democracy in their school life would they become effective adult citizens. Experiments in student participation modeled on existing structures of city and federal governments were tried in many secondary schools during the first decades of the twentieth century, gaining media attention and support from political and educational leaders. Opponents, however, charged the schemes would simply reproduce the corruptions of the existing political system rather than offer a model of democratic behavior. Despite successes, programs that established a "school city" or "school republic" faded in the years after World War I.
By the 1920s, fraternities and sororities had become the center of college society and these social organizations dominated many student governments. The first national organization of student government leaders, the National Student Federation (founded in 1925), supported reforms of education and restrictions on student behavior.
A focus by administrators on school as the center of young people's lives made student government an important component of high school culture during the 1920s and in subsequent years. New initiatives were based on life within the school and became a means to promote "school spirit." Student government stood at the head of an array of clubs that operated outside the standard curriculum. Many student councils and their teacher advisers had responsibility for promoting social activities, monitoring halls, lunchrooms, and organizing assembly programs. During World War II, councils turned to drives for war bonds in addition to their management of social life.
While participation had once been limited to club officers and those who met certain academic requirements, by mid-century councils were increasingly elected at large and in homerooms and qualifications for participation were removed. The Progressive-era focus on modeling adult structures had been replaced by an emphasis on students learning "responsibility" and "cooperation." Student government was a special kind of "delegated authority" in which students stood at the bottom of a long chain of command.
Promoted by the National Association of Secondary School Principals, student government entered the postwar years as a predictable aspect of any high school life. The high school became the appropriate focus for students' patriotism and student government the principal's cooperative partner in managing the school.
College student government hit a high-water mark during the 1950s as a larger and demographically diverse student population poured onto campuses. Student government was almost universal in colleges of all sizes. Although leaders complained about apathy, most students voted in campus elections. Student government leaders, represented nationally by the National Student Association (founded in 1947), felt student government should have greater responsibility and involvement not only in student social affairs but also in the educational matters facing their institutions. When they called for academic freedom, an end to racial discrimination, and reform of in loco parentis authority over students, leaders imagined such changes would occur within a college's existing power structure.
While students played significant roles in the civil rights and antiwar movements during the 1960s, student government declined in its importance during this period. Although many activists were or had been student government leaders, student governments themselves waded into the fray only tentatively. Campus protests against the unequal distribution of power in college students' lives and demands for greater involvement in campus decision-making that resulted in significant upheaval often made the student government appear to be a "sandbox" for make-believe politics. The National Student Association's reputation was damaged significantly when it was revealed in 1967 that the Central Intelligence Agency had been providing substantial funding for its international student exchange programs and had exerted unofficial influence on its policies since the early 1950s.
The transformation of educational governance policies in the early 1970s prompted by student unrest seemed to presage a renaissance for student government. In secondary schools, a robust student council that focused on dropouts and drugs as much as, or more than, improving lunchroom behavior and the participation of student representatives on local school boards were deemed the best way to promote democracy and avoid future strife. Colleges and universities transformed many of their governing bodies to involve students in decisions regarding student life and educational policy. As the years went on, however, the feeling of urgency regarding student involvement in governance began to fade. Studies found declining sentiment for student involvement in governance and participation in college elections. High school involvement declined even more and experts' proposals for increased student participation were often precisely the same ones described as accomplishments of a dynamic student council in the 1940s.
By the end of the twentieth century, high school students involved in government balanced the demands of multiple extracurricular activities; school councils made announcements and coordinated clubs and social events but even that level of responsibility was declining. On college campuses, student government leaders often sat on university committees, managed a considerable student activities budget funded by activities fees, provided other services to students, and worked with an expanding staff of "student affairs" professionals. While the belief that a new generation must learn the skills of democracy remained, the role of student government in that quest is less clear than it was to its progressive advocates.
See also: Youth Activism.
Altbach, Philip G. 1974. Student Politics in America: A Historical Analysis. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Drewry, Raymond G. 1928. Pupil Participation in High School Control. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company.
Freidson, Eliot, ed. 1955. Student Government, Student Leaders and the American College. Philadelphia: United States National Student Association.
Smith, Joe. 1951. Student Councils For Our Times. New York: Teachers College, Columbia University.
Terrell, Melvin C., and Michael J. Cuyjet, eds. 1994. Developing Student Government Leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.