More Student Activism on Campuses Now Than in the ’60s

College students are subject to more stereotypes over the past twenty five years than most ethnic groups. In one clutch of years during the late Sixties, the media described them as radicals. In another period during the Fifties, they were seen as party-goers and deliberately lightheaded before heading out to “the cold, cold world.” Now the conventional description is that conservatism is sweeping the student scene with business courses being the rage.
The reality, of course, is that 13 million mostly young people, in community and four year colleges and graduate school, are far too diverse to be subject to one umbrella-type generalization. Students with whom I speak today are shocked when I observe that there is, with the exceptions of marches and demonstrations, more activism on campuses now than in the Sixties. There are full time student research and action groups with professional staff lobbying, litigating and exposing at well attended news conferences the harm of polluters, consumer fraud perpetrators and governmental abuses. Students have won major court cases and swept state wide referenda on utility reforms and trash recycling. They often earn course credits for working on such research projects as testing drinking water or analyzing bank redlining practices.

Some of the surprising opinions held by students that belie the conservative imagery now attached to them as a group has come out in a new report, “The American Freshman: Twenty Year Trends 1966-1985,” produced by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute. Some 280,000 college freshmen at 550 two-and four-year colleges and universities were questioned in this survey.

The students seem to contradict the political labels that they attach to themselves with which policies they support. While more entering freshman chose to call their political position “middle-of-the-road” than in 1970 (from 45.4% in 1970 to 56.7% in 1985), look how they view what the UCLA Institute called “traditionally liberal political and social positions: By large majorities, 1985 freshmen support national health insurance (60.5%), increased taxation for the wealthy (73.3%), a larger government role in both consumer protection (62.4%) and environmental clean-up efforts (78.0%) and are against increased defense spending (73.2%).” By 66.0% they feel that the government is not doing enough to promote disarmament and by 54.5% they support school busing as a vehicle for promoting school integration (up from 37% in 1976).

Further breaking any single stereotype, 26.6% of the students polled supported abolition of the death penalty, compared to 53.9% in 1969. Barely one student in five supported legalization of marijuana, compared to 53% supporting that proposal in 1977. The trend does show a more materialistic orientation toward their courses and a greater worry about an uncertain economic future. The new poll registered a large decline in values that “relate to altruistic activities and social concerns: helping others, promoting racial understanding, cleaning up the environment, participating in community action programs, and keeping up with political affairs.”

The number of student activists has always been a small proportion of the student body. The first statement from a student greeting a visitor to campus is often a comment on the apathy there — whether the year be 1986 or 1968. But there are more experienced student activists today having an impact on society than ever before. They may not receive national television coverage because they don’t stop traffic, block buildings or swallow goldfish. But they do receive fairly good local press coverage and are taken quite seriously by politicians in the legislatures of New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Minnesota, California, Oregon and other states.

The problem with stereotyping college students is that it leads to erroneous judgments and misunderstanding of what is going on around campuses outside the athletic arenas. Since there is no real national student newspaper, magazine or weekly television show to inform a population group twice the size of Sweden’s population, many students reverberate these stereotypes among themselves and prejudge both what is going on and what could happen if their impressions were more accurate.

Readers interested in some materials on student activism can write to U.S. Public Interest Research Group, 215 Pennsylvania Avenue, SE, Washington, DC 20003.

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