In the months between receiving my acceptance letter to the University and trying to avoid stepping on the “M” on the Diag when I came to campus, I conjured up many grandiose images of what my college career would be like. The liberal reputation of the University fueled many of these glory-filled visions. I pictured demonstrations on State Street against the government’s violent involvement in the Middle East, posters against the abortion bans and petitions advocating the advancement of gay rights. The sepia tone that covered these ideas in my mind probably had more to do with their connection to the ideals of the 1960s than my inability to sharply outline the future.
Many politically aware students hold up the ’60s as the golden age of student activism. But is it worth being nostalgic for an era we weren’t alive to witness? We look so fondly to the ’60s and the intense advocacy of that decade, but has it really disappeared? Or has it merely shifted?
While the University’s history of students’ penchant for causing ripples is substantial, the face of student activism has changed. Technology is shaping the way we fight back and, even more so, where we fight.
Our nostalgia for long-lost protest is well deserved. Student activism began long before the idealistic ’60s, but that is when it truly came into fruition, especially in Ann Arbor. In 1966, more than 1,500 students staged a sit-in to protest the compilation of class rankings. A group of black students overtook the administration building in 1968, where University President Robben Fleming finally listened to and then agreed to address their complaints about lack of minority professors and student enrollment. Later, in 1969, a renters’ union was created, and nearly 1,000 students withheld rent from landlords to force rent reductions and repairs. In all of these instances, students pulled together in alarming numbers in order to instigate change. They stood in the way, making it impossible to avoid their message.
Today our voice is often faint. But it’s not because students have stopped voicing their opinions. The medium has changed. The misplaced beauty of Facebook has forged a new path for opinions. Creating Facebook groups and events has become the new word of mouth. And although the blogging universe allows everyone to share unique thoughts, who has time to read this mass virtual posting wall?
We fight. We kick. And we definitely scream. However, because so many of our efforts are cyber, they don’t make an impact. We sit in the comfort of our computer chairs and complain on blogs and make Facebook groups about things with which we don’t agree. The protest against the graduation venue change was loud, but outside the virtual world, the actual protest failed miserably. In the fall of 2006, when race- and gender-based affirmative action was banned, students were outraged. But where has that outrage gone? There have been no sit-ins for increased minority enrollment, not even a loud call for the admissions figures for the upcoming year – which are being released later than last year. Students are more likely to be vocal online than to be seen pushing for change in the flesh.
It can’t be said that it is for lack of passion that students don’t fill the Daily with stories of sit-ins. We are often positive activists, championing causes like raising money for children in need of physical rehabilitation or garnering support for Barack Obama. Outside of these positive pursuits, we have still accomplished a lot. In the past few years, students have effectively ousted Coca-Cola from the University for unethical practices, rallied against sweatshops and protested the war in Iraq. But there were just as many causes where our actions simply fell short, if they were present at all.
I fall into the same trap about which I am complaining. It simply is easier to contact large amounts of people by e-mailing them or announcing an event via Facebook. But conversely, when I am being pestered to attend this or support that, it is too easy to hit “not attending” or to press delete. There are no disappointed eyes on a computer screen.
We certainly aren’t complacent, but we need to take a page from ’60s and use big actions to create big changes. These grow from personal interaction. Facebook can’t be our medium, or it will become our legacy.
Kate Peabody is an LSA junior and a Daily associate editorial page editor. She can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.