Two separate drives making headway around the country’s colleges and universities show this new realism. The first is the voter registration campaign directed at the newly enfranchised 18 to 20 year old. More will be known about the significance of this youth vote after the elections. But we know now that the stage has been set for a shift in political attitudes and responses towards the young by all levels of governments. How far that shift will go depends in part, of course, on the number of youth votes and their reasons for voting. But if the choice between candidates is to be broader than tweedledee or tweedledum, and if government between elections is to operate justly and efficiently, then the second drive centering around citizen action assumes signal importance.
In a dozen states from Washington to Vermont students are signing petitions for the creation of student public interest research groups. PIRGs, as they are called for short, are already underway in Oregon and Minnesota. Composed of lawyers, scientists and citizen organizers, these two PIRGs were established last year after a majority of college students in those two states voted to raise their student fees by $3 per student a year. The money is used to hire full time researchers and advocates who represent student social concerns in the community and projects which enlist the energy and talents of students throughout the states. A representative/board directs these PIRGs as independent connection to any of the schools. Nor do these student research groups get into politics. They focus on community and state problems which citizens’ attention
The Minnesota student public interest research group, for example, is operating during its first year on a budget of about :200,000. There are four attorneys, scientists, and other young people working full time on environmental, consumer, tax, housing, and municipal government problems. The group is developing students to research and act upon, often together with older citizens, throughout. It is becoming a catalyst for many lively students who have found a way to combine their studies and extracurricular interest with training in recognized community problems.
As the PIRG idea catches on in other states, more students will discovered that there doesn’t have to be an artificial distinction between students as students and students as citizens. Indeed, there is a mutually enriching relationship between two roles. For too many years, millions of college students have dissipated their energies on courses and subjects which bored them because of their remoteness from the of the times or their lack of pertinence to the great public needs which knowledge should recognize. Boredom or lack of motivation continues to plague campuses the country in a massive epidemic of wasted talents. What students are beginning to experience is that they get a more thorough education in their field of study if they can work on investigating and solving problems which challenge both their minds and their sense of values.
This is the appeal of the PIRG idea. It provides an opportunity for students to connect their growing knowledge to public problems and solutions in the society. Science and engineering students can work on pollution prevention projects which challenge their technical knowledge and their sense of what science and engineering should be doing for human betterment. Political science and economics student able to test textbook principles in the context of everyday consumer or governmental problems and develop a deeper understanding of factual and theoretical research that relates to people.
If there is one thing formal education should give all students, it is an opportunity to become proficient citizens. Citizenship can reflect many viewpoints by many people. But its common ground is time and energy spent by people to better their society with the skills and values they have. Compared with earlier generations, it takes an extraordinarily long time for young people in America to grow up today. Preparation for so-called adulthood is taking longer and longer and the impatience of many young people reflects this inordinate stretchout in training. It is time for students to acquire the skills of citizenship at the same time they acquire the formal tools of learning.