Back To The Barricades

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Today’s collegians, whether at Harvard or Berkeley, exist in a different milieu. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, as a direct response to campus rotests, most colleges’and universities abandoned in loco parentis rules. The Selective Service System, once a dread specter on college campuses, is an all but forgotten historical relic.

Though many students probably continue to believe themselves disadvantaged or subjugated, they do so from specific vantage points: as people of color, as gays and lesbians, as women, as immigrants. The idea that students qua students are oppressed simply does not command the degree of Credibility it did 35 years ago.

Nevertheless, last May’s sit-in protest at Harvard was not an isolated event. Students today are markedly less politically engaged than their parents were—the percentage that believe it is “very important or essential” to follow politics dropped from 57.8 in 1966 to 31.9 in 1994—but if they have lost interest in the electoral process, they also worry about, and strive to reverse, a perceived deterioration of civility and mutuality in American life.

Polls conducted in the early and mid-1990s revealed that 66 percent of college students volunteer for service activities, that roughly 4 of every 10 entering freshmen had already participated in a demonstration or protest in high school, and that 62. percent of students hope to enter a career involving a “meaningful” social contribution. Indeed, many of today’s collegians appear to have a definite sense of obligation to their communities and to one another. Many of those who are campus activists—especially if we broaden the definition of activism to include volunteerism and advocacy—seem able to find cause for engagement without first locating personal stakes.

Generalizations are necessarily overreductive. But at second glimpse, it may just be that the celebrated student movement of the 19605 was smaller, less self-sacrificing, and certainly more complicated than popular memory would suggest. And today’s students may not be as self-absorbed as pundits would have us believe. As one veteran of the 2001 Harvard protests remarked, “This isn’t our fathers’ sit-in.”