“Students don’t care to think about peripheral issues because they’re wrapped up in doing what they have to do . and because getting involved in political issues isn’t going to boost anyone’s MCAT score, political apathy is the unfortunate result for many University students.”
– Theresa Kennelly (The mindless student, 09/29/2006)
As the editor in chief of the conservative bi-weekly The Michigan Review last year, I had a little slogan: Anyone who refused to pick up the Review without having read it – whether because they were too conservative, too libertarian or too contrarian – probably shouldn’t. Anyone who’d prejudge the paper without giving it a chance would likely waste the hard work of our writers if they actually did grab a copy – and those “readers” we could do without.
A read-through of the Daily’s columns over the last year would lead you to believe the sky is falling, that we occupy a bizarro campus: University students, known at one point in history for their supposed activism, have grown apathetic – and during a time of war, no less. How sad.
Precious little analysis has been attempted regarding this trend, and what little has been done barely cracks the surface. More energy is spent bemoaning our supposed apathy than is spent understanding it, and even less is spent on solutions. The lack of analysis begins with the questionable (yet largely unchallenged) assumption that people our age should, for whatever reason, be interested in politics.
But student apathy is understandable and even logical given the current state of affairs. At a time where the voices of political dissenters often go unheard and almost always go unheeded – especially with the Bush Administration – it’s easy for a political outsider to wonder what his involvement in the political process would accomplish, if anything.
And it’s tough to come up with suitable answers – especially for college-age youth, who occupy the bottom rung of the political ladder.
In many ways, campus is the perfect storm for an apathetic student body. Mix together equal parts overtly political teaching; the Daily’s editorial page, which tilts decidedly and overbearingly liberal; and Diag activists, ranging from misguided “preachers” to anti-MCRI advocates to right-wingers hoping to “catch an illegal immigrant,” and you have an environment where it’s easier, less time-consuming and less frustrating to avoid politics altogether. Why sit around “debating” with holier-than-thou members of Students Organizing for Labor and Economic Equality or always-angry Young Americans for Freedom when you can simply go home and drink a beer with your roommates without drama? Call it cynical, call it “mindless,” call it whatever you need to make your own political activity seem more principled, but it makes sense.
None of this is to disdain the efforts of politicos on campus. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Part of my attraction to the University when I was applying was the idea that the student body was smart enough to provide the intellectual challenge I needed, the challenge my high school couldn’t. In some ways it has, and although 3 a.m. debates have long ago lost their novelty, I can’t help but respect the efforts of people who wake up at 6 a.m. to hand out campaign stickers on the Diag or who spend entire weekends knocking on doors and making phone calls in the hopes of changing one person’s mind on the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative. Those people are great, and their work is important. I just wonder whether glorifying their efforts as somehow embodying what our generation “should be” actually works to encourage further apathy.
This is why I advise extreme caution in making the politically active among us the gold standard to which all should aspire. Let us not pretend that political activity is some higher form of existence, preferable to volunteering, internships, athletics or any of the other activities University students do to keep themselves busy; to do so would only encourage the apathy we decry by alienating the apolitical. Politics isn’t for everyone, and given the overstated conviction with which many express their beliefs, and the sheer intolerance many express for anyone who dare disagree, politics, at least on this campus, isn’t for most people.
Why is this a problem? Anyone who isn’t political probably shouldn’t be. They’d probably just ruin it for the truly committed. That type of “involvement” we can do without.
Dickson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.