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Student inactivism

Where have all the college activists gone?



Even before the explosion of activism in the 1960s, college campuses were perceived as breeding grounds for interest and engagement in social and political issues. Since Vietnam, it has been almost a presumption -- and for some a fear -- among parents sending their children off to school that they would return wearing Birkenstocks, planning to build homes in Belize, and parading a display of patches on their jackets with political slogans. The image of the harmlessly radical if not entirely well-informed student was an embedded American stereotype.

However, campuses here in the Springs these days are presenting a different picture of the college experience. Despite recent U.S.-led military endeavors and constant social problems across the globe, students are increasingly disinterested, frustrating those who do take a more active role.

"From what I've observed, apathetic is a good way to describe a large percentage of the students," said University of Colorado at Colorado Springs sophomore Don Pence, president of the Society for Social Awareness student group, which encourages even-sided debate on campus. "The student body is not as informed on social issues as they really should be and is just very disinterested. Even the issues that do generate some interest are the ones that are in your face -- they're on TV, in the newspaper headlines. They're right in front of you. They're not the issues that require a greater awareness."

College Republicans and Democrats

In recent elections, voter turnout among students has declined, as they become a less vital demographic in political campaigns. A candidate's forum that Pence helped organize at UCCS for last November's elections drew 13 local candidates but few student attendees, and an article in the UCCS student newspaper The Scribe at the time reported bluntly that "a surprising number of students have no clue what the issues for 2002 are."

"There was not a whole lot of debate around campus," said Jared Spaulding, a member of the UCCS College Republicans. "A few people had bumper stickers supporting one candidate or another, but mainly if you weren't in some club like the College Republicans or College Democrats, there wasn't a whole lot of interest."

The problem is not unique to the Springs, and the rising indifference isn't only being felt at the ballot box. School newspapers around the country report a laid-back approach to topics such as American military intervention and battles over civil liberties, even at traditionally activist schools such as the University of Oregon.

"Students, however they feel, don't tend to be the movers and shakers anymore," said retired UCCS professor Jacquelyn Beyer. "When I first came here it was at the beginning of the Cambodian invasion, and we had more than a hundred students on the back lawn for a discussion about what was being done. Student involvement (in demonstrations) isn't that big now. It's not the atmosphere I'd like to see, but hey, I thought the 60s were great."

Even schools known for having politically outspoken student bodies are experiencing a relative lull in activism. Colorado College is often chastised by local right-wing organizations as being a haven for liberalism, yet reaction to the war in Iraq this past spring was calmer than one might expect. While protest movements started off with potential, they quickly dwindled down to a small core of advocates.

"As the war neared, people backed out a bit," said CC professor Jeremy Bendik-Keymer, who helped organize a number of campus events surrounding the war. "I think it was a combination of feeling that there was nothing left to do and feeling of 'well, we can't be unpatriotic' or 'we can't undermine the government.'"

A level of helplessness

Indeed, many surmise that the lack of student activism could be an effect of a broader shift toward conservatism in the United States following Sept. 11, a movement less frequently associated with the type of advocacy traditionally seen on campuses. Another factor cited is a greater focus on one's personal financial security as opposed to a focus on the greater good, spurred by deteriorating economic conditions.

"I don't know why students aren't as engaged as they were in, say, the '60s," said Paul Sondrol, a professor of political science at UCCS. "I wonder if much of it isn't the bad economy. Perhaps it's more important for them to get a good job and make 50 grand a year than go out and protest."

Part of the reason may lie in the initial assumption that students are supposed to be activists. While the liberalizing effect of college is an established axiom, its accuracy isn't precisely measurable, and one can question the impact of higher education on an individual's conscience.

"I do not believe students really change a whole lot by being on a college campus," said Beyer. "Professors just don't have that much interaction with or influence over their students."

Still, Bendik-Keymer maintains that the problem is not with the students' interest but with their impetus to act upon it. Today's students, he feels, are more pessimistic about their ability to do anything substantial about political and social problems than past generations. While there may be concern, there is also a level of helplessness.

"Students in this generation now are much more aware that the government does not necessarily work for its people," he said. "You might call that a shift toward being more critical, but at the same time, there's a shift toward apathy. The big problem is that, given a pretty cynical consciousness about the government, what means are there to bring about positive change?"

-- Zach Ahmad is a graduate of in Coronado High School in Colorado Springs and is currently a freshman at American University in Washington, D.C. Ahmad served the Independent this summer as an editorial intern.

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