07/09/2012 11:44 am ET Updated Sep 08, 2012

Where Is Student Activism?

What is the normal state of college students when it comes to activism about political causes? Are young people in universities today anything like their counterparts in Madison, Cambridge, or Champaign-Urbana in the 1960s, or are they more likely to be apathetic and disengaged when it comes to pressing social issues?

The evidence of the past fifty years is a bit of a mix, but most periods on college campuses since 1950 suggest that activism is the exceptional state. Sociologist Nella Van Dyke did a careful inventory of instances of student activism and protest at nine representative colleges and universities from 1930 to 1990 in a 2003 article in Social Problems titled "Crossing Movement Boundaries." Her primary research question was to probe the dynamics of coalitional protest, but along the way she assembled a very interesting timeline of protest over the sixty years.

The most obvious lesson from her study is that the period of the late 1960s was pretty exceptional. The convergence of anti-war protest, opposition to the draft, the Civil Rights movement, and  worldwide surge of student radicalism came together to create a youth social movement in the United States that had to be contended with. This period of protest spiked to a peak in 1968, with 180 events at the nine colleges in that year. The pace of protest then declined sharply to about fifty events in 1975. This compared to about twenty events in 1963. But her compilation also demonstrates that the level of protest shifted upward after the sixties relative to the period 1930-1960.  There was a new normal after 1970.  There were fluctuations -- 1975 was a relative low, and 1977 and 1990 were significant high points for protest on these selected campuses -- but the average level was significantly higher than earlier. The 1930-1960 average was about 10 events per year; after 1970, the average was about 60 events at this sample set of schools.

In addition to the Vietnam War, the impact of the civil rights movement on campuses in the late sixties was also significant but probably less important to the success of the movement than the activism and involvement of millions of ordinary African American people all over the South. Black student activism in support of equality on campus, and supporting the creation of Black Studies programs, was probably the biggest piece of the college component. Activism around identity politics continued to play an important role in some universities, including struggle for Latino studies, Asian-American studies, and LGBT studies.

Since the sixties there have been only a few large causes that generated significant involvement by college students. The anti-apartheid movement did so in the 1970s, and there was some activism on campuses in the 1980s against U.S. support for the Contras and other atrocities in Central America. In the 1990s the fair labor movement had successes on university campuses -- student organizations succeeded in demanding fair labor agreements in apparel deals for athletic paraphernalia, and there was some activism around Fair Trade agreements for coffee farmers.  

Throughout the middle of this epoch there was a thread of involvement in sexual equality and reproductive rights. The national feminist movement continued apace, and occasionally these issues spilled over onto groups of women and men on college campuses around specific issues (contraception and abortion, for example), leading to a spate of involvement and protest, where student protests were common and consequential.

And of course we can't overlook a measure of activism in the past year around the Occupy movement and the extreme inequalities of wealth and power that this movement calls out, as well as the anti-globalization protests that preceded. Dozens of campuses around the country have been home to encampments and other versions of Occupy protest. And the involvement of University of Wisconsin students in protests against Governor Walker in 2011 was notable.

So there have been issues and times during which American college campuses came alive around issues of social and political justice. But really, this doesn't seem like a lot when we consider the traditions of student activism that exist in other countries around the world. 

So it raises a question: Why has there not been more activism and political voice by American college students? Is it that American young people don't have as much concern for these issues as we thought? Is it that we've put college students into a campus cocoon, so they're less able to take on real political commitments? Or is it something about the institutions of the university themselves that succeeds in bypassing activism and mobilization?

I don't have answers to these questions. But the sociology of social movements is one important place to look. (Here is some brief background on the social movements literature.) Doug McAdam's study of the civil rights movement in Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970 is a good place to start. McAdam argues that there are a handful of prerequisites for the emergence of a mass movement around a shared issue, including organization, leadership, and a suitable cultural context. Mere grievance and political values and preferences were not enough; sustained mobilization required resources of various kinds.

Only a relatively small number of scholars have studied U.S. student protest through the lens of social movements theory. Two who have done so are Nella van Dyke and Sarah Soule. van Dyke has an interesting post on the topic in Mobilizing Ideas.

van Dyke emphasizes the "resources and networks" part of the equation.  It is the organizational resources available to activists that make the difference across time and institution, in her assessment. By inference the difference is not psychological and doesn't turn on intensity of moral involvement by the students in different times and places, but rather on the concrete ways in which latent involvement is transformed into mobilization. van Dyke also believes that different universities have distinctive activist subcultures of protest, and where these cultures are most pervasive we also find the highest levels of protest.

So maybe the explanation isn't a lack of engagement by students but instead an absence of traditions and organizations that could mobilize them. And maybe there will be more organized efforts to assert their voices as the issues come closer to home for young people.