I’m sick of people bemoaning student apathy. I’m also sick of people invoking a romanticized picture of the 1960s to promote a vision of what today’s student activism should look like. Whenever we collectively adapt a distorted view of history, it impedes our ability to understand present problems.
During my time at The Michigan Daily, student apathy has come up as a cause of concern from many sources. When I was on the editorial board, we frequently criticized apathy in editorials regarding government elections, the United States Census or any issue where it was remotely relevant. Not that students shouldn’t fill out their Census or vote, but whenever such issues came up, someone had to remind us of the way the University was in the 60s, back in the days when Students for a Democratic Society was prominent and the Daily was most relevant. I recall a Daily alum telling the staff that reporters should put more energy into reporting and follow the lead of a Daily reporter who, in the 60s, dug through trash outside the Fleming Administration Building to see if he could find any confidential papers from the Office of the President.
A Daily column by Matthew Green (Bring activism back, 12/8/10) serves as a good example of the way many like to frame the 60s. Unlike today, the 60s was the period of the Peace Corps, the Great Society and protests sparked by the SDS. But given that our political problems today resemble those of the 60s, Green’s narrative illustrates, it’s only fitting that student activism see a revival, even if in a less radical form.
But our typical view of how student protests became so prominent by 1969 is oversimplified and distorted. First of all, the SDS didn’t just rise out of a fervor of pure idealism — it was largely a response to the Cuban Missile Crisis, an event that made University students like SDS founder Tom Hayden realize how close the U.S. and Soviet Union came to starting a nuclear war.
Next, a closer look at the 1962 “Port Huron Statement” by Hayden shows that the SDS didn’t immediately have the support of students nationwide — the SDS criticized students of the time for their apathy and consumerism. It wasn’t until the draft, the giant American death count that dwarfed that of our current wars and the U.S. brutality in Vietnam — as depicted by the media — that student protests really took off.
There’s a consistent notion that students today are underperforming in comparison to their predecessors. What history can teach us in this scenario is that the tendency toward low student participation in civic activity today is the norm, not the exception. Furthermore, personal stake in an issue is very important for the cultivation of social movements — people tend to get involved in such movements when the issue at hand affects them in a clear and non-abstract manner.
So where does a more nuanced understanding of history get us? It’s hard to say. Going back to Green’s piece, I agree with his fundamental point that our politics would be more manageable if more people paid attention, but perhaps for a different reason. The late 60s was a time period when many social groups determined that traditional democratic means of political participation were inadequate to make their voices heard. The only way they could influence national policy was by instigating disorder. The optimist in me hopes that by encouraging civic participation, we can use the democratic process to manage national problems before they escalate to Vietnam-level chaos.
On the other hand, it’s important for community organizers, policymakers and op-ed contributors to take into account that political apathy exists for a reason. When people choose not to vote, rather than scolding them for giving up their civic duty, we may be better off asking ourselves why they felt their votes didn’t matter. If people are choosing the sports page over coverage of the demonstrations in Egypt, what accounts for that?
Over the past week, Tea Party supporters and Wisconsin public workers and students have been rallying for their respective causes regarding the proposed state budget. Events like this take place when most of the people involved have something to lose if the political process doesn’t go their way. So the incarnation of the University in the 1960s doesn’t serve as the model of what today’s student body should look like. Maybe some future event will be so egregious that 80 percent of the national student body goes on strike, but I don’t see that happening any time soon.
Jeremy Levy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.