College Activism on Campus

The below is a sample of some of Evan’s work conducted while an undergraduate in college.

College activism is alive and healthy today on campuses, contrary to the belief of many. Students are merely taking old forms of activism and transforming them into a new type of activism where they, instead of complaining for changes in the system, go about creating their own changes in the system.

This may come to a surprise to many people who believe that college activism is a thing of the past. Just ask Walter Bouzard of Wartburg College in Iowa, who related his experience with activism on his campus, and as a whole across the country. “Two years ago, as President (Bush) was beating the war drum loudly, I joined a bus load of people to go to Washington to protest. The bus was full, but there were no more than a half dozen university students.”

College activism has long been a dominant force on the political scene. Many people recall the force college students were during the Vietnam War. They marched in protest, they cried and they debated loudly so the people in positions of power would hear them. Nowadays, the voices of college students are disappearing. As Allan Saxe, professor of political science since 1965 at the University of Texas says, “today’s college students, by my anecdotal evidence, care primarily about their jobs, love life, cell phones and academics in that order.”

However, some experts caution against overstating the degree of involvement of students in the 1960s when comparing them to activism today. Professor Richard Stackiewicz of Oakton Community College in the suburbs of Chicago says that “throughout most of the ’60s, most college students supported escalation of the U.S. war in Vietnam and most never participated in any significant way in the movement. In that sense, the minority involved in antiwar activity is no different than it was 40 years ago. Of course, the movement on campuses did expand from 1970 to 1972 but that was in response, in part, to the greater disillusionment in general caused by revelations of secret bombings in Cambodia and Kent State,” he says.

Saxe, who also hosts a local cable television program on current affairs, agrees with Stackiewicz’s contention that the activism in Vietnam is overblown. “I was skeptical of some students’ moral reasons for opposing Vietnam because the protest movement really began to wind down after the draft was ended by President Nixon. Many protested because of the culture, it was the thing to do – good protest music, Joan Baez, (Bob) Dylan, and Woodstock. Also, the Vietnam protests were in the context of the counter-culture movement that gave it added vibrancy.”

Chuck Tripp, Professor of Political Science at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, adds that the civil rights movement of the 1960s had a lot to do with the protests of the Vietnam War. These civil right activists helped pave the way for Vietnam War activism. “There is no similar ‘climate of protest’ today,” Tripp notes, which may contribute to the relative lack of activism today.

Saxe also notes that there certainly were students who felt very strongly about the Vietnam War, but for many it was peer pressure, culture and conscription. Military conscription may have had a lot to do with activism and it is the key ingredient missing today. “I believed a great many, though certainly not all, were really motivated by the draft, with the rally cry ‘Hell No, We Won’t Go!’” says Saze.

Karen Holt, executive director of Project Pericles, Inc, a non-profit company based in New York City which promotes education of social responsibility in colleges and universities, says that activism is flagging “with respect to the war, because there is no draft and because so far it has been relatively easy to avoid a personal sense of or threat of sacrifice. It is much harder to mobilize a widespread groundswell.”

Alan Leffers, dean of students at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia, expands on the relative lack of concern about the Iraq war and possible conscription: “This generation of college students have largely been sheltered by its parents and other adults and, arguably, overprotected in most aspects of their lives,” he says.

“While they oppose the war in a general sense, it poses no immediate threat to them personally because there is no draft ready to put them in harm’s way. Were the government to impose a draft, I think you’d see a more activist reaction from students, though I’d anticipate their overprotective parents being more vocal than the students!”

Parents of children today were active during the Vietnam era, and come from a different perspective than their children, leading to intergenerational conflict, Tripp says. “Intergenerational conflict worked in favor of protests against the Vietnam War and works against activism protesting today’s Iraq war. Parents of Vietnam college and university student protesters were part of the Depression, World War II and 1950s generation whose conservatism, pro-government attitudes and conformity to authority were rejected by their protesting children,” he says. “In turn, today’s college/university youth are children of the Vietnam and 1960s generation who reject their parents’ anti-establishment views in favor of supporting governmental authority and more conservative politics in general.”

Contemporary college youths are missing one key ingredient needed for activism, and experts agree it is the lack of a draft. However, several professors argue that students now are just as involved. As Leffers notes, upbringing has caused students to take a more conservative tack, to accept decisions made by those in power, and to look at other ways to make a difference.
Meg Mott, a political theory professor at Marlboro College in Vermont, presents a different take on activism in the 1960s and the activism of today. She calls her students anarchist, in the sense of being anti-politics.

“They attend demonstrations against the war in Iraq, and for a fluid understanding of gender. They boycott Wal-Mart and eat soy-products. They distrust formal politics, not because they are without ideals, but because they see all political institutions as corrupted by the insatiable desires of imperialism,” she said.

Spokesman for Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, Tom Krattenmaker agrees with students looking at different forms of activism, saying that “it’s not that activism has gone away, but that it’s changing. Instead of protesting or lobbying, students are taking direct action and in many cases more sophisticated action. It’s clear that students just don’t find (activism) as useful as other forms of action.”

Holt notes these forms of actions as including “phenomena such as moveon, Howard Dean’s campaign, blogging, message boards … you will find that there is a great deal of participation by young people. The problem may be that it’s older people who are applying older definitions of activism.”

One such example of alternative methods taken by students can be found at Oakton College. Students conduct activities such as counter-recruiting when the military sets up tables on campus, raising money for Katrina victims by selling fair trade coffee and going to Washington for the Iraq war protest. Swarthmore’s students have launched an organization to raise funds to finance intervention by the African Union and are spearheading a radio program called War News Radio.

All these different organizations students are part of may be another reason why college activism with regard to the war is considered so low – there are so many other issues that take their attention.

Tripp speaks more about the students’ possible redirection of passion. “Today’s anti-war protest movement has many competitors compared to the Vietnam War protests. There are many more issues that divert college/university student attention away from the Iraq war whether it be gay rights, animal rights, feeding the poor, minority rights, the anti-nuclear movement, environmental problems, service learning projects and the list goes on.”

Jeanne Jackson of Birmingham-Southern College in Alabama notes that volunteerism is very high in today’s age. Activism is simply being redirected to many more causes and in ways that students feel they can make more of a difference. As Ketterman says, “today’s students prefer to work within the system and see that as the more effective route.”


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