Life stirring on the campus

July 2, 1999

Among an apparently feckless US student population, Harvey J. Kaye sees signs of a social consience

One of television's most popular new series, Felicity, presents the trials and tribulations of a bright and attractive California 18-year-old who has gone east to study at the fictitious "University of New York". Arguably, the show's appearance last September reflects more than corporate ambitions to capture teen viewers. With the culture wars abating, the media once again has focused its higher-education attentions on students.

Most of the time, coverage has been predictable and the news discouraging. However, as the academic year unfolded, a more complex picture of undergraduate attitudes, aspirations and prospects began to materialise. While we should avoid foolish optimism, the possibilities become even more intriguing and the future wonderfully less predictable.

At the outset, we read almost everywhere how a "culture of disengagement" characterises contemporary student life. Confirming our unscientific observations and anxieties, research revealed that undergraduates spend fewer hours studying and more off-campus, socialising or working. Portending worse to come, incoming freshmen state they found high school boring, have little interest in learning or social activism, and view their studies as a means of securing higher incomes.

Undergraduates supposedly have disengaged not only from their studies but also from their traditional extracurricular activities. In Collegiate Life: An Obituary, Arthur Levine and Jeannette Cureton lament: "Higher education is not as central to the lives of today's undergraduates as it was to previous generations. Increasingly, college is just one of a multiplicity of activities in which they are engaged every day."

In the wake of these tales, student partying habits surfaced as the hot topic, briefly leading one to think that students hadn't changed all that much. But one survey gave cause for worry: on-campus drug and alcohol arrests had risen significantly across the country and, though officials claimed it mostly had to do with their new determination to crack down on offenders, campus health-service folk related that more and more students confess they drink "to get drunk".

The New York Times reported that in reaction to such developments, student groups have called upon administrators to reassert in loco parentis, wherein "educators serve as stand-in parents". And the Chronicle of Higher Education noted a significant increase in admission applications to Christian fundamentalist colleges. Applicants said they wanted clear rules and controls, not simply because they did not trust themselves, but because they did not want to contend with more libertine types. Whether hedonists or puritans, students seemed an uninspired lot.

However, other fresher images spring forth as well. From out of the ranks of those very same disengaged materialists, committed idealists emerged to start shaking things up. Students at more than 20 universities around the nation - including Duke, Georgetown, Holy Cross, Yale, Michigan, Wisconsin and Berkeley - staged rallies, teach-ins and sit-ins protesting at sweatshops and other labour issues.

Such actions recalled the 1960s, but with certain glaring differences. In the 1960s, student protesters regularly found themselves at odds with labour. Today, student demonstrators align themselves with labour. In particular, students have demanded an end to the arrangement whereby universities license the right to manufacture sweatshirts, T-shirts and caps bearing their logos to companies using overseas sweatshops. At some schools, like Harvard and the University of Virginia, students have also demonstrated in support of "living wage" campaigns pursued by the lowest-paid university employees, janitors and cafeteria workers. And on many campuses students have rallied in support of diversity, affirmative action and gay rights.

Student activism seems to have arisen out of nowhere. But we should appreciate its possible origins. In 1996, the AFL-CIO's new leadership instituted "Union Summer", a programme in which 1,500 students each summer have served as interns in union and community organising drives. Some have gone on to become professional organisers; almost all have returned to campus eager to mobilise fellow students in support of labour.

There is more to it, however. These are "our kids", that is, the children of the 1960s generation (my own daughter just completed her freshman year at the University of Virginia). Predictably, our own contradictions express themselves in their lives.

We may pride ourselves on our political radicalism. But let us not forget that our generation also provided cohorts for the new-right movement of the 1970s. We may nostalgically revel in our rebelliousness. But we "boomers" have turned into a most materialist lot.

Yet, in spite of our hypocrisies and failings, we may well have imbued some of our offspring with utopian impulses. They question, volunteer, challenge and may yet seek to change the order of things for the better. We should not underestimate them.

Whether or not this new student movement truly takes root, spreads and becomes a major force for change, the new student activists have already accomplished something of potentially radical import. They have helped to recreate a progressive alliance between intellectuals and labour.

I wonder if the upcoming television season will see sophomore Felicity joining a picket line, sitting in at the dean's office, and signing up for Union Summer 2000?

Harvey J. Kaye is Rosenberg professor of social change and development at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

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