More than 400 people packed the Mendelssohn Theater at the
Michigan League last night to hear a distinguished
professor’s “ideal last lecture.”
Given by Golden Apple Award-winning History Prof. Matthew
Lassiter, the lecture, titled “Alienation, Apathy, and
Activism: American Culture and the Depoliticization of
Youth,” is not actually his last — rather, it is a
ceremonial privilege bestowed annually upon the award’s
The Golden Apple, sponsored by the University Hillel and Apple
Computers, is given to outstanding teachers who “teach each
lecture as if it were their last,” according to the
award’s website. Students nominate an inspiring teacher and
Hillel’s Students Honoring Outstanding University Teachers
chooses the winner from among these nominations. This year, SHOUT
chose Lassiter from a pool of more than 600 nominations.
Before Lassiter’s lecture began, quotes from students
nominating Lassiter were shown on a large projection screen mounted
LSA sophomore Sam Stalker, who has had Lassiter for two classes,
said he agreed that he is an outstanding teacher, in part because
of his unusual accessibility.
“He’s knowledgeable about everything but
doesn’t place himself above students,” Stalker said.
“I’ve never seen a GSI or professor who you have to
wait in line to go to his office hours. Every time you go,
there’s a line of like five or six students waiting to get
into his office.”
Lassiter chose “Alienation, Apathy, and Activism” as
the subject of his “last” lecture because he wanted to
show that American youth aren’t as depoliticized as many
people think. He said he believes that this issue resonates with
students. “This is a student-given award and I wanted to give
a lecture relevant to things going on today,” Lassiter said.
“Young people are a lot more interested in these issues than
they’re given credit for.”
To illustrate his point, Lassiter compared the youth activism
and culture of the 1960s to that of their modern counterparts
through three events of 1999 — Woodstock ’99, the
Columbine and Littleton school shootings and the “Battle for
Seattle” World Trade Organization protests.
These events, Lassiter said, illustrate the media and political
institutions’ trivialization of today’s youth activism
by portraying advocates as angry, privileged and aimless.
For instance, when Woodstock ‘99 erupted in rioting and
violence, the media cited this as an example of privileged youth
senselessly rebelling against society — a sharp contrast with
the 1960s civil rights protesters, he said.
However, Lassiter said, the Woodstock ’99 incident was
actually a rebellion against corporate culture and consumerism,
which the event unsuccessfully attempted to force on a
counterculture institution such as Woodstock.
In addition to Woodstock, the combination of the media’s
focus on the anticorporate violence in Seattle and the zero
tolerance policies adopted by schools in the wake of the Columbine
shootings — policies regarding violence and drugs —
discouraged students from political activism, he said.
“(These events) served to criminalize political movement in
youth,” Lassiter said.
Lassiter said despite these challenges, there have been a number
of youth activism success stories, including the exposing of the
prevalence of sweatshop labor among major corporations. And, said
Lassiter, youth activism should only increase in coming years as
more students leave college uncertain about their futures.
“I think the bad job market is the best thing to happen to
college graduates in years,” said Lassiter. In closing,
Lassiter urged his audience to follow this trend. His final advice,
to “choose to be citizens in a democracy rather than
consumers in a shopping mall” was greeted by raucous applause
and a standing ovation.
University alum Brandon Zwagerman, a former student of Lassiter,
said he was impressed with the lecture and moved by its message.
“I’m inspired to do something with myself right now
instead of sitting around apathetic. I thinks it’s hopeful
now that people don’t have the cushy job market and will get
involved and try to make the country better.”