Ever ready to take advantage of technology and to try something new, we sent an electronic version of Paul Loeb’s story on student activism to a few spots on the Internet where people were talking about campus politics and “Generation X,” just before we went to press. Their comments were interesting enough that we rushed them into the magazine. Let us know what you think. Mail, fax, or e-mail us your thoughts on Loeb’s article for next issue’s Backtalk. And for those of you interested in what we’re up to online, send mail to firstname.lastname@example.org, and we’ll let you know.
I was involved in student radicalism for two years of my first degree and a year of my second, during that hiatus in public consciousness known as the ’80s. The struggle in the face of aggressive apathy turned me off the whole idea of activism (but not social justice).
My generation has grown very wary of everything they’re told by those in “authority”: The lesson that there is ideology behind all language has been well learned. And in a way, this makes for a more genuine radicalism–radical attitudes hardened by skepticism. My generation does not venerate leaders in politics or fashion or political fashion. We aren’t so easy to deceive or to organize. We are more anarchic than progressive.
I’d like to think that Emma Goldman and Thoreau would be at ease in the ’90s and would have detested the ’60s.
University of California-Berkeley
Activism, whether political or social or environmental, has scared me at times and inspired me at others. The fanaticism with which some activists lunge at a cause often has me wondering what the meaning is behind all the vehemence.
The reasons people give for joining various groups are as different as the groups themselves, but it always seems to boil down to that desire to belong to something bigger. One young man quoted in the article joined the cause to fight AIDS when a friend of his died. He needed to find some meaning in the event, it appears, and thus joined to grasp on to something much bigger than his sole voice of loss. Others admit that they just want to belong to “something.”
Still others, and these are those people who are labeled “lazy” or “unwilling to become active,” believe that to become included in the noise means to eventually lose one’s own identity. You can’t be yourself if you’re screaming at the top of your lungs for something bigger, right?
College is supposed to be about finding one’s own identity. It’s supposed to mean trying new things, finding the limits of tolerance. All these things are good if a person takes the time for reflection and re-evaluation. Causes don’t appear to allow for that. The pressure is on to make the argument more unique, to recruit more followers, to see who can yell the loudest. Sadly, the concept of self may be left in the background.
University of Georgia
I’ve been at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee for 10 years, so I’ve watched the political current change on my campus. One trend here, especially in the late ’80s, was the conservative effort to “stamp out” organized student government. UW-Whitewater voted to withdraw from the UW Student Association. Also, some campus groups have become more aggressive about demanding refunds of the approximately 75 cents from our segregated fees that go toward the UWSA.
In the past couple of years, however, I’ve seen some changes that have made me more optimistic about student activism on campus. UWM initiated a recycling program in 1991. A minority support office and a women’s support office were opened. Students from different political bents are more willing to work together to get information out to the student body.
All in all, I’m seeing less of the militant activism I was involved in five years ago, but more action coming about.
Theresa J. Flynn
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
I went through four years of college (’85-’89) even less aware of politics and activism than the students who were quoted in the article. I didn’t even know enough about activism to have a negative opinion of it. I was solely concerned with my wage-earning potential after college. I didn’t do anything unless it would look good on a resume.
After a year and a half in the workforce in management, I quit my job in search of a new career. While I was searching, I got involved in volunteer work and then in politics. After three years of waiting tables to pay the bills, I am now working full time as a political activist, splitting my time between campaign finance reform and gay and lesbian issues.
I have a friend who graduated from college with a major in political science. Since graduation, he has worked in retail and completely ignored politics. We have talked about why, with our differing backgrounds, we ended up working in each other’s major, so to speak. My theory is that in his political science classes he was taught all about how the world and its political systems work in the context of facts and was tested on his knowledge of those facts. Everything I learned about the world and its political systems was from activists who taught me how to work inside and outside the system to change it. My friend’s worldview is a static one, while mine is a dynamic one.
The point is, you can’t necessarily judge a person’s activist involvement from their college years. I made a truly radical change. If I can do it, anyone can.
St. Louis, Mo.
As a Gen-X “elder” (I was born in ’61), I’ve seen student activism change as described in the article. When I attended college at Big State U. (i.e., the University of Texas) in the late ’70s and early ’80s, student activism was taking on a patina of “old hat, old news” among freshmen, sophomores, and other undergraduates. The older graduate students, assistants, and professors just couldn’t understand the students’ pragmatic attitude: “I’m here to get a job, not save the world.”
Today, I work in the fund-raising department of a small college, and the last few paragraphs of Loeb’s article seem to hit the nail on the head. Service, not political activism, is emphasized here. Indeed, community service is a required part of the core curriculum. And in fulfilling the requirement, students escape their middle-class isolation and learn more about the world’s needs. In this way, I think community service is both more subtle and more powerful than the “traditional” march-‘n’-chant mode. It is the present and future of student activism.
Nice article. I am a junior at the University of Pennsylvania (well known for its intense apathy), but I am going to summer school in Berkeley. The difference? Well, in terms of activism, not much. Apathy rules both places.
“Slackerness,” or more specifically, the general distrust of anything political, left or right, is incredibly pervasive now. But there is a link between apathy and the movement away from the abstractly political to the personal. It comes from a general (read “nonpolitical”) distrust of politics–that it never really gets much done.
One last note. There is a group of students with a certain politics (mostly progressive) who feel uncomfortable doing anything. Being an activist means “buying into something,” but that is viewed as very uncool. Of course, we believe in things, but we would really rather not.
University of Pennsylvania
I think Loeb’s article paints an overly optimistic picture of student activism. Admittedly, at Dartmouth I’ve seen the worst campus politics has to offer, but I have little reason to believe that the problems here don’t exist elsewhere.
On this campus, about a dozen activists (maybe fewer) are responsible for holding the left together. One can’t take on the frats, ROTC, and the Northern Forests Land Council all in one term while also publishing a newspaper, taking classes, and working for tuition money. But there’s really no choice, because every time the core group of activists has tried to get new people to help run a particular campaign, things have fallen apart.
Many students aren’t active because they’re afraid to be. I’ve personally had my room broken into, been repeatedly threatened with lawsuits, received huge volumes of harassing e-mail, and even had someone attempt to blackmail me in retaliation for my activism. These kinds of tactics take their toll on activists psychologically, and serve to scare sympathetic people away from working on the issues that matter to them.