About two months ago, I wrote a story for my campus newspaper on Haiti earthquake relief at UC Davis. When I interviewed a graduate who was organizing relief efforts, he told me he hoped a campus-wide relief effort would help prove that ours is not an apathetic generation. The idea of my generation being remembered as apathetic does not sit well with me. Who drew these conclusions about our generation? Are we apathetic? And if we are apathetic, why?
The accusations come from mine and my parents' generations alike. In 2007, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote that he was "baffled" that people of my generation are so much less radical and politically engaged than we need to be. I admit I too have found myself baffled by my peers' apparent disinterest in politics and worldly affairs, yet I don't think radicalism and political engagement define an active generation. Cameron Russell, author of "Your Generation of Hypocrisy Begat my Apathetic (!?) One," writes that our generation is baffled instead by the world we have inherited, what he calls a "world of hypocrisy and crisis; a world on the brink of collapse yet at the height of human civilization." True, our generation has inherited something wicked from our predecessors, but apathy as a result of a collapsing civilization doesn't seem to match up. Veronica Hefner agreed with Friedman's sentiment in a University of Tulsa opinion piece, "Few people seem to get passionate about anything. If you show more than an average, nonchalant interest in something - you're labeled a fanatic fruit loop." I believe my last blog on the March 4th protests, and the wave of news coverage that followed the protests more than negate the issue of my generation being passionate about anything. What Friedman, Russell, and Hefner have not mentioned is the tremendous pressure facing students today.
On April 4th, the Daily Beast ranked America's 50 Most Stressful Colleges based on five criteria: the cost, competitiveness, acceptance rate, engineering, and crime on campus. What is most significant about this post is not the criteria, but that such a ranking even exists. College is romanticized as the best years of our lives, but what is the quality of those years if they are spent under tremendous pressure?
While our predecessor's are unimpressed by our lack of political affinity, they fail to see that many members of our generation are driven by a different force. We are the generation that faces immense pressure, a pressure that begins in elementary school. Anyone remember the rolling backpacks that became to popular about 10 years ago? The rolling backpack wasn't so much a fashion statement as a chiropractor's prescription. School children's books were so heavy that they couldn't carry the books on their backs. When high school came students, at least at my school and I assume at many others, were placed in a hierarchy. The so-called A-level students at my high school ended up in the AP and honors classes while the B, and C level students (did these categories also signify grade expectations?), were placed in less advanced classes. And so went the hierarchy and the competition. In high school students are over saturated with what the universities like to see, extra-curricular activities, because no one likes to see an apathetic college applicant.
In college, we're told to get 'real life' experience. This 'real life' experience is usually unpaid, and usually means forgoing a paid job. And what are internships for? Experience of course, because we're expected to be out of college in four years, and expected to get jobs out of the gate. In four years we have to 1) get a degree, 2) gain as much 'real-life' experience as possible via internships, 3) get the grades to get into grad school if we so choose, and 4) try to have a social life.
Is it any wonder we seem apathetic toward politics? When we aren't in class, in an internship, or studying, how can we be expected to kick back and turn on C-SPAN? Our time is spent in a competitive mode, where we are constantly trying to get ahead. While we may seem apathetic toward politics, we surely are not apathetic about our futures. From those who deem us apathetic, we have not only inherited a country up to its neck in debt, but a society and lifestyle in which we are constantly expected to outperform each other. For students generally uninterested in politics, an intense course load combined with little free time leaves little room for political inquiry or investigation.
For all the accusations of apathy, fewer seem to recognize the weight college students carry on their backs. If these truly are the best years of our lives, should universities moderate competition, and place less pressure on students?