The 1960s — a decade heavily shaped by the Vietnam War — was a period of time at the University that sparked rage and revolt on campus. The experience of the students that matriculated through the University during those 10 years was marked by the war and its overall effect on the country. Exactly 50 years later, in the midst of yet another war, it seems our campus is immune to what’s going on outside of Ann Arbor’s city limits.
About two years ago, right after returning from Thanksgiving break, I met a friend for dinner. I began to discuss the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India — a three-day affair that gripped the globe until the captives were safely rescued. My break was consumed by discussion of the attacks. Every newspaper I read or television network I watched covered the conflict. But my friend had no idea what I was talking about. I explained the situation with a slight sense of horror at her naiveté.
Our generation exists in a society that is constantly surrounded by technology. And yet, we seem to have a disconnected wire from the realities of the real world. Students walk around campus on their iPods or Blackberrys, engrossed in the superficial world held in their hands. And while I have no doubt that they are using the devices for productive purposes, they take what they learn and store it in their brain and continue on their way. Never on campus do you hear about a protest against this dragged-out war on terror the likes of which you would have seen in the 1960s. Or the genocide occurring in Darfur. Our generation, following such a proactive one, is surprisingly passive.
Today and tomorrow, we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the creation of the Peace Corps — a volunteer organization that sends citizens to worn and torn countries in an attempt to help repair the damage. Then-presidential candidate John F. Kennedy first announced the concept of a Peace Corps-type organization during a late night address on the steps of the Michigan Union.
That speech almost didn’t occur. Kennedy was running late that evening and told his advisors to cancel the event. But the advisors disputed his decision. They informed Kennedy that the students were so eager to hear him and that they were so desperate to support him that he must show up. Around 2 a.m., the presidential candidate arrived in Ann Arbor to find a sea of students surrounding the Union.
In my three years at the University, I have only once seen a similar passion — November 4, 2008, on the night that Barack Obama was elected president. In the two and a half years since Obama was elected, many events have occurred worthy of students’ attention. And with a crucial election for the state of Michigan quickly approaching, it’s essential that our generation rallies the troops on the Union steps (pun intended) to support a cause or a candidate.
Many students spend their summers working on Capitol Hill or at large banks, witnessing our society’s problems from an internal view. We have the opportunities to intern for senators and read proposed bills on their way to Congress or work on Wall Street and observe the effects of the economy’s downward spiral and attempted repair. But when summer ends and we return to Ann Arbor, our exposure and impact diminish. Influence doesn’t have to be contingent on location. Students need to maintain those ties and remember those issues when they are at school and apply them to their classwork and lifestyle.
In honor of the anniversary of this historic affair and in recognition of a pivotal race for governor heating up, I encourage each of us to take a stance on an important issue affecting our generation and create new memorable events. Whether it pertains to political office or eco-friendly cups in the cafeteria, we all need to find an issue to become more passionate about.
Emily Orley is a senior editorial page editor.