There are over 12 million students at colleges and Universities and over 99 percent of the national television time devoted to them covers their athletic activities. A Martian visiting this country would conclude from the televised athletic contests that higher education is dribbling, throwing and batting and very little.
But there is much more that college students are doing in a quite serious way which received virtually no media coverage at the national level. As a result the stereotype takes hold that there is no more student activism.
Of course there was apathy in the Sixties and there is apathy today on the college campus. But there is also more student activism today than in the if street demonstrations and sit-ins are excluded. By any measure, lobbying for consumer and environmental laws, successful public interest suits in courts of justice, investigative reports, clinical credit work with community service and action groups, and development of consumer services for fellow students, the collegiates of the Eighties surpass their pioneering predecessors of the Sixties.
This observation is not all that surprising when one takes into account the growing number of full time citizen research and action groups run by college students or offering internships for course credit. The seed were planted in the Sixties, to be sure, but the yearlings are sprouting in this decade.
Here are a few illustrations of student action. The largest and best organized national student voter registration drive in American history is underway. A gathering at Harvard University in early February of 1600 student leaders from 48 states got the drive underway at hundreds of campuses.
Student run credit unions and cooperatives are spreading and becoming more professionally managed. Students have been in the forefront in pressing for state recycling bills to help clean up the environment and conserve resources. Students have worked with community residents to combat bank redlining in New York City. Missouri students were leaders in organizing a 44 group coalition for greater media access.
Students in several states have diminished government secrecy, advanced government open meeting laws, made small claims courts work better, opposed unsafe nuclear power practices, supported solar credits and renewable energy development and helped enact automobile lemon and truth in educational testing laws.
Presently, student groups are opposing, with detailed arguments, gouging telephone and utility rate hikes. They are striving for pollution controls to reduce Acid Rain and clean-up drinking water sources. They are publishing a large number of consumer protection guides ranging from tenant handbooks to energy conservation kits.
What distinguishes student activity today from that of the past is the drive to institutionalize their work in permanent and staffed organizations. Moreover, student leaders are more keen on building democratic rights and power within the enabling constitutional framework through assured voting rights, the use of the initiative, referendum and recall and the empowerment of the unorganized citizenry.
To see students working with industrial laborers for safer workplaces and with elderly Americans against consumer fraud is to see both a superior education and patriotism at work. But the national media, so prone to covering beer busts and spring cavortings at Fort Lauderdale, have managed to regularly ignore their achievements. Even the technical creativity of engineering students developing more efficient engines and adaptable wind power systems receive little attention.
Why is media coverage important? Because it informs a more accurate public understanding of these young Americans. And it motivates more students to emulate such superior accomplishment and public idealism, among many other beneficial consequences.
There is riot a single weekly or monthly national television program devoted to what college students are doing away from their athletic arenas. Perhaps securing such a program can be the next project for the students activist agenda.