The Real Stuff: Up-close interviews with three young activists.
The Ten Best: Schools for idealists and activists.
Conservatives on Campus: Reaganism lives on in young hearts.
FASTTALK: Electronic readers speak up.
In a classic Doonesbury cartoon, a rumpled professor holds forth from a lectern while his students dutifully scribble away in their notepads: ” . . . and in my view, Jefferson’s defense of these basic rights lacked conviction. Okay, any discussion of what I’ve covered so far?”
“Of course not,” he thinks to himself. “You’re too busy getting it all down.”
“Let me just add,” he goes on, “that personally I believe the Bill of Rights to be a silly, inconsequential recapitulation of truths already found in the Constitution. Any comment?”
The students continue to take notes.
“No, scratch that!” he says, raising his voice and waving his hands. “The Constitution itself should never have been ratified! It’s a dangerous document! All power should rest with the executive! What do you think of that?”
They keep writing, their faces blank.
“JEFFERSON WAS THE ANTICHRIST!” the professor screams. “DEMOCRACY IS FASCISM! BLACK IS WHITE! NIGHT IS DAY!”
The students are still taking notes as the professor collapses on the podium, announcing, “Teaching is dead.”
“Boy, this course is really getting interesting,” one student says.
“You said it,” another responds. “I didn’t know half this stuff.”
The cartoon ran in 1985. At the time, I was touring college campuses, lecturing on how citizens confront or avoid public issues. For the next five years, I saw the cartoon posted on faculty doors at almost every school I visited, until it felt like an icon of the times.
The cartoon symbolized a split between the teachers who displayed it–often former 1960s activists still involved in or sympathetic to social change–and a generation of students seemingly docile, unthinking, and wholly uninterested in Jefferson, democracy, or anything else besides making high grades on their tests.
From the late 1970s through the early 1990s, commentators branded students as greedy, apathetic, and unconcerned with higher ideals. In a 1980s Newsweek on Campus cover, collegians replaced the old cliche, “Don’t trust anyone over 30,” with “Never trust anyone under $30,000 a year.” A series of Rolling Stone ads contrasted the old stereotype of their typical reader–a hippie wearing love beads–with the new model: a well-dressed, young entrepreneur, ready for Wall Street.
Despite this generation of students’ apparent move to the right, cultural conservatives have attacked them as well. Former Secretary of Education William Bennett harangues them in speeches and articles as ignorant and self-indulgent. Others dismiss them as “politically correct.”
These descriptions don’t match the realities I’ve observed. From 1987 through 1993, I researched student values at more than 100 campuses in 30 states. I spent time at student dorms, apartments, fraternities, and sororities; I went to marches, sit-ins, and political meetings; I spoke with teachers and families.
I found false the images of a generation almost innately deficient, as if missing some key gene for concern. These students hardly led America’s retreat from responsibility. Rather, they came of age under the sway of political, cultural, and economic currents that convinced citizens in general–including many of those now criticizing students–to seek personal well-being over a common social good.
This political retreat should not be confused with active political conservatism. Although many students have backed off from civic involvement, they continue to hold beliefs more liberal than the general population. As a Young Republican at Williams College lamented, “No one takes our fliers, either.”
But campuses have also been more politically active in recent years than popular mythologies suggest. In the past decade, students helped trigger a nationwide movement to divest from South Africa. Others marched against the Gulf War, fought to save family farms, or challenged tuition hikes.
The allegiances of this generation are complex, and distant media reporting doesn’t always catch the contradictions. In November 1990 the New York Times ran a major article, “’90s Teen-Agers Echo ’60s Spirit,” on the resurgence of high school protests. The same week the Wall Street Journal heralded the new young conservatism of what it called the “GOP Generation.”
The realities confound such neat summations. America’s students and recent graduates are neither wholly radical nor wholly uncommitted. On today’s college campuses, political withdrawal and engagement coexist more closely than in the 1960s. Even as most students hold back, there is a quiet trend toward growing campus activism and renewed political involvement.
America’s economic crunch makes it hard for students to take responsibility for more than just personal survival. Compared to students of 20 years ago, they work more hours at outside jobs, go deeper into debt to pay for college, and face a more uncertain economic future. “I’m in enough of a hole as it is,” explained a student from Michigan State. “The politics are out of my control. I don’t have time or energy to waste.”
Economic factors also lead many students to give up any hope for work they can believe in. A student I spoke to at the University of South Carolina decided at age eight to become an accountant, even though she disliked math. Other students want to go into teaching or farming but hold back because they wouldn’t earn enough. Seeing a society of clear winners and losers, they want to ensure that they’re not left out on the street.
Having grown up during a time when fortunes were built, not by building cars or railroads, but through the alchemy of junk bonds and corporate takeovers, most students remain curiously detached from the actual content of their prospective labors. Although a few find genuine delight in the gamesmanship of finance or sales, most are interested in these careers because economic security and comfort supersede their other concerns.
“MARCHERS WITH THEIR MARCHER FACE ON”
Students have to contend with more than just a bad economy. They have come of age in a cultural climate mistrustful of those who take on causes that go beyond their personal lives. Campus activists, in the view of one Columbia student, just “protest for the sake of protesting.” “They’re only in it for a fad and a trend,” a University of Washington woman stated. She used to go to Colorado College, “where there was a group who put up their little shanties and did their little demonstrations about divestment. No one paid them any attention. We just called them ‘the granolas.’ ”
The same stereotypes apply to student activists regardless of the causes they embrace. A Dartmouth student called students who worked on campus racial issues “just marchers with their marcher face on, swept up in their emotions, the chants, the attitude they take.”
Mistrust of activism often accompanies faith in those who wield power. “Activists at the rallies take a look at what’s going on in the country and immediately find fault with it,” explained an education major from Minnesota’s Mankato State University. “But they aren’t well informed. The people who are running things, the heads of the corporations, they understand the whole picture. They know what they’re doing and are doing it for a reason.”
Students like these often claim that they can serve a greater social good by becoming vice presidents of Shearson Lehman or plant managers for Dow. “You have to start from the inside,” insisted a Columbia student. “I want to be one of the people in a position to give a lot of money away. Look at how much good Donald Trump could do if he wanted.”
“THE ’60S ARE OVER”
Students have learned to view with suspicion not only those who take controversial stands in the present, but also those who took them in the past. “The ’60s are over, you don’t want to be like that,” a friend told a Fairfield University student involved with environmental questions. “It’s just nostalgia,” proclaimed a student from the University of Michigan, accusing those involved in a campus peace group of wanting “to live in an ideal world.”
In particular, students have inherited a highly distorted image of the Vietnam-era movements whose legacy continues to overshadow current campus politics. That period could be viewed as a model for understanding how ordinary citizens–especially students–worked to end segregation, stop a dubious war, and further democratize this nation. Instead American culture has taught mostly its caricatures: ragged crazies spitting on soldiers. Or it has purveyed images of a generation so heroic that the pres- ent generation could not possibly equal its legacy.
“I don’t have anything to do with the past or history,” a University of Illinois at Chicago woman stated after a friend described how her father returned from serving in Vietnam and opposed the war. “I mean, it happened. But what does it have to do with us now? It doesn’t have anything to do with me individually.”
“I want to be active,” said a student from Michigan State. “But I don’t see stuff in the media which gives me any idea what to do. I know people can do things, but nobody’s ever taught me how to get involved.” “The TV news,” a friend added, “only shows us the crazies.”
In times of great upheaval, as at the height of the Vietnam era, students had to choose consciously whether or not to get involved. But in recent years, political withdrawal has been the automatic track at most schools. Students have to make a conscious effort to depart from it. “The government won’t listen,” they say. “Whatever you do, it won’t make a real difference.” “When you fight the system,” said a student at Maine’s University of New England, “you get screwed.”
“I read their essays,” a teacher at the University of Washington told me, “and it all sounds very bleak. At age 20 I saw the whole world to discover, all these things I could do. That’s not how they see things at all. They talk like people who expect life to be difficult and unpleasant.”
“I HAD TO TAKE A STAND”
March 1990. National Student News Service, a biweekly digest of campus events, reported that 10,000 students had marched on 40 state capitols to challenge continued deforestation of U.S. public lands. Student protests at the University of Southern California convinced the faculty senate to call for public hearings on South African divestment. At the University of New Mexico, the campus chapter of the Public Interest Research Group convinced the student union to ban the use of Styrofoam products in its food service. Students at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania boycotted a fund-raising telethon, demanding a greater say in college decisionmaking.
Political withdrawal still dominates most of these schools. But something is changing. Political disengagement seems less widespread than just a handful of years ago.
Students are becoming active, not because America’s dominant cultural thrust encourages them, but because they find personal models for commitment. Some have parents long involved in social change. Others encounter teachers, ministers, or friends who consistently stand up for what they believe. Still others find connections to a more general dissident culture: They read about Greenpeace staffers challenging corporate polluters or stumble onto local groups addressing health care, equitable taxation, and the environment.
Students often get involved in issues that affect them directly. Strikers at the City University of New York marched and performed sit-ins because tuition hikes were threatening their education. African-American students on various campuses became involved with racial issues after campus police repeatedly stopped and questioned them, or monitors double-checked their IDs at the gym, or courses completely neglected the narratives of their communities.
“You need something on a personal level,” reflected an AIDS activist at the University of South Alabama in Mobile. “For me it wasn’t just that my friend died of AIDS, but how he died, and the reaction–the apathy and ignorance and lack of concern from his family and friends. I suddenly realized that how he died was not an isolated issue.”
POLITICAL GENDER GAPS
Building on the recognition of the personal as political, the feminist movement gives young women a continuing model for involvement. Even for those women who resist being labeled “feminists,” it offers a context in which to view injuries and insults that might otherwise be viewed as purely personal. Feminist classes and speakers encourage female students to place their specific experiences in a larger social framework. Many women begin to view their politics, in the words of a Mount Holyoke student, as coming out of “knowing who you are.”
Young women also have a number of role models for social engagement. Emory student Sonya Tinsley remembered growing up admiring women like Gloria Steinem and Alice Walker, but thought that young men had few comparable socially engaged examples. Sports figures came to mind, and actors like Arnold Schwarzenegger or speculators like Donald Trump, but few men who spent their lives fighting for social ideals.
Perhaps as a result of these factors, college women have become increasingly more politically involved than college men and more liberal on just about every issue. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, male and female students described themselves in relatively similar political terms, with men often slightly to the left. By 1993, 30 percent of women in their first year of college considered themselves liberal and 18 percent conservative, whereas for men, conservatives led by 28 percent to 23 percent.
“I COULDN’T HOLD IT ALL UP”
Political involvement brings difficult challenges. “People are thrusting a new issue at you every week,” explained the student coordinator of Emory’s volunteer center. “You can’t suddenly become Joe Cool veteran recycler, volunteer, racial mediator, and everything else all at once.” “Sometimes you want to talk to someone else besides the same 10 people every meeting, every quarter, every year,” said a University of Illinois woman.
Student activism can also get mired in the mundane: sending out endless rounds of mailings; writing meeting announcements on dozens of classroom blackboards; running off leaflets at the campus print shop. “I couldn’t hold it all up on my own,” said a Fairfield student involved with Results, a national hunger action network. “Now I’ve pulled away. I couldn’t do it anymore.”
Taking on social causes can also separate students from peers who do not share their priorities. Fred Azcarate, the United States Student Association’s first Asian-American president, radically changed his friendship circle when he got involved in SUNY-Binghamton’s divestment movement. “I had my friends from freshman year, who were mostly athletes,” he told me. “Then I got a whole new group of political friends. I tried to get my old group to go to the rallies or meetings, but they’d say no. I tried to budget my time, spending a certain amount with each group, then ended up dropping most of my old drinking buddies. It’s easier to socialize with the people you hang out with.”
“By the time you get to be a junior or senior,” explained a University of Michigan activist, “you’ve self-selected who you hang out with. I seriously don’t know students whose politics are different from mine.”
This self-isolation can be a problem, though, when students stop reaching out to the unconvinced. Columbia’s mid-1980s divestment effort worked because it built on several years of patient educational efforts by its organizers. But when the university administration created a new set of stifling conduct rules a few years later, one campus group decided to march chanting through campus buildings rather than reaching out to build greater support. Students who encountered them were furious, dismissing them as “15 people yelling about absolutely nothing.”
I asked one speaker whether she wasn’t losing her audience with her rhetoric. “If I say ‘traditional white male patriarchy,’ ” she replied, “any reasonably progressive person should understand.”
Other activists were more self-aware. “We forget that we aren’t the whole campus,” said one. “Columbia may well be racist and sexist and classist, but simply saying the words doesn’t prove anything except to those who already believe it.”
“LESS INTO POLITICAL STATEMENTS”
As a response to the real and perceived flaws in existing campus movements, students have begun looking for different ways to voice social concern. Community service projects, for example, let students perform immediately useful tasks like feeding the hungry without engaging in more direct political action. One Columbia student who supported the antiapartheid blockade later turned his attention to a group that ran a soup kitchen and tutoring program in the basement of a nearby church. “Maybe it’s just my temperament,” he said. “I’m more into service and less into political statements. Maybe I didn’t feel strongly enough to sit on the steps protesting apartheid, even though I supported what they did. Maybe I just concentrate on other causes.”
Campus environmentalism has offered another opportunity for students apprehensive about political involvement. Students can participate in recycling or in Earth Day activities without, at least at first, asking which national and global choices have steadily degraded the earth. Because entry is easy and the crisis self-evident, environmental concern has produced one of the largest continuing student movements in years. Brown University students negotiated utility rebates to help their campus switch to more efficient lighting. A University of Nebraska group, the Wildlife Club, consists mainly of wildlife management majors who educate their peers and local public school students on native plant and animal populations. University of Minnesota dorms held an “Energy Olympics” to see which dorm could use the least energy during subzero winters and 100-degree summers.
“THAT WORLD WE’RE WORKING FOR”
Unlike their predecessors of a decade ago, contemporary students do not have to reinvent activism from day one. Rather, they enter colleges and universities that have already had some years of steadily percolating involvement. At most campuses, political debates have slowly grown more widespread and issues more familiar. This change remains a nascent one. As a woman from New Jersey’s Stockton State suggested, most activist students are only beginning to “stumble over new ground.” Yet they are also finding, in the words of a Columbia activist, “a taste of that world that we’re working for.”
Times change. Issues change. The divisions within the student generation continue. The 1980s and early 1990s launched two political streams on campuses and among recent graduates now in the workforce. One was marked by relentless individualism. The other took up a contrasting vision of common responsibility. These tendencies will continue to conflict and contend as those who came of age in this time pass through American life. And they will continue to influence the values of students to come.
This article is adapted from Paul Loeb’s forthcoming book, “Generation at the Crossroads: Apathy and Action on the American Campus,” to be published by Rutgers University Press in November.
Glossary of Terms
- As in “Animal House.” But some frats are pledging peaceniks.
- Recycle their leaflets to Jerry Garcia riffs.
- Fashion meets political correctness; Guccis but no furs.
- Recognize the true uselessness of positive action.