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Today's Student Activism

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It has been half a century since America's universities were the site of political insurgencies in support of civil rights and in opposition to the war in Vietnam. Is there any chance that the current generation of young people will lead the next great reform movement -- reducing the power of private wealth in the political system?

Certainly there are ample grounds for skepticism. At least some of the responses of first year students in an annual survey carried out by researchers at UCLA provide the impression that young people have little interest in replicating the 1960s. (1.) In the most recent polling, only a small percentage (6 percent) thought that there was a "very good chance" that they would participate in student protests or demonstrations. Indeed, the goal that most chose as "essential" or "very important" was that of "being well off financially." In contrast to the 73.4 percent of respondents who thought affluence to be a top priority, only 20.2 percent believed that "influencing the political structure should be accorded priority attention," while a third thought that "keeping up to date with political affairs" was essential or very important. Given these attitudes, it is no surprise to learn that "middle of the road" was the characterization chosen by more students than any other classification (46.4 percent). Only 2.9 percent thought of themselves as "far left," with another 27.3 percent describing themselves as "liberal."

When it comes to specific issues however, this impression of bland disinterest looks considerably different. Specifically, college students have not bought into the idea promoted by the political Right that government is the enemy of a good society and should be miniaturized, if not eliminated altogether. In their responses, first year students overwhelmingly want the government to intervene to control the sale of handguns (67 percent), to act to limit environmental pollution (78 percent), provide health care to everyone (61 percent), provide gays and lesbians with the legal right to adopted children (76 percent), and increase the tax burden of wealthy people (64 percent).

Even if they do not label themselves as such, it seems fair to say that these students possess the world view associated with political liberalism. They clearly are worrying about their own economic future. But at the same time they are compassionate and endorse policies to assist people who are disadvantaged.

Despite this, these students do not think of themselves as "political." Elizabeth Holland and Nicholas V. Long report that though the generation born after 1982 "care[s] deeply about public issues... they reject our current political culture." Students do not want to participate in conventional politics but "would rather strive to be part of creating a public life that is more open, participatory, relational and inclusive." (2.) The result is that the number of students involved in community service has increased even as traditional political commitments and activism have declined. In 2010 one-third (32.1 percent) of the freshmen surveyed anticipated participating "in volunteer or community service work." As one student put it: "I don't do politics, but my service work is political."

The obvious problem here is that gun control, environmental protection, progressive taxation and the other policies students support cannot be achieved outside of the political process. They all require legislation. Indeed, despite their protestations to the contrary, community service work does often cross over to conventional politics. Work with immigrants often requires campaigning against anti-immigrant legislation, and the same is true for other causes for which students provide supportive services. Progressive and engaged students perpetually are faced with a dilemma. The logic of their commitments points to political participation, but entry into the system feels like a betrayal of their values.

Students cannot be faulted for their negative assessment of the American political system. They are right; it is broken. Because money drives the political system, deliberation and compromise are marginalized. Arguments in support of policies become cynical rationalizations when what is really at stake is economic advantage for campaign donors. How the society is affected is a secondary consideration. But it is precisely the students' understanding that we have a greed-driven politics that leads to their withdrawal, thereby contributing to that system's perpetuation. Unaware of an alternative way of structuring politics, their abandonment of politics makes perfect sense. But that absence means that the hope for reform is significantly diminished.

In all of this there is an important opportunity for those of us who believe that the public funding of election campaigns would go far to restructure the political system and make politics more attractive to and valued by young people. We need to engage students who have rejected politics and who find an outlet in service work. They share our values, but they are unable to envision an uncorrupted and inclusive political system. Our task is to persuade them that a more egalitarian politics can be achieved when the power of private wealth in politics is reduced and also that -- in the name of their own beliefs -- they should join us in the effort to achieve that goal.

1. The survey data reported below is reported in John H. Pryor et al, The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2010 (Los Angeles: Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, 2010) p. 31, 38, 39.

2. Elizabeth Hollander and Nicholas V. Longo, "Student Engagement and the Renewal of Democracy," Journal of College and Character, Vol X, No. 1 (September 2008) p. 2.