Over thirteen million students return to or start college this autumn. What is their state of mind? To prepare for a job. To earn money to pay for the tuition. To have some fun. These are the generalizations often made in recent years.
There are other sweeping characterizations. Students are said to be apathetic. They are viewed as vocationally rather than intellectually minded, in college for training, not education and learning. Too many students are not caring for their health; they smoke, drink or have a drug habit.
What about the students who do not fit these stereotypes? All over the country, there are student mobilizations on matters that count — toxic chemicals, Central America, the nuclear arms race, consumer safety, South Africa, local problems with housing, telephones, hunger, drinking water and banks — to name a few issues.
These young people are developing their civic skills at the same time that they are doing good. One cluster of student activity revolves around the public interest research groups (PIRGS) long encouraged by this writer. These PIRGs are functioning in over 20 states, including New York, Massachusetts and Oregon where they may well be the strongest citizen groups there.
One of our associates, Kelley Griffin, is just out with a 226 page paperback on PIRGs entitled More Action for a Change. The accomplishments of these sturdy students and their full time
PIRG staffers are astonishing. Through full time advocates at state legislatures, PIRGs have caused the passage of laws to advance recycling, government ethics, fairer student testing, energy conservation, safeguards for elderly consumers of hearing-aids, and shortening of check-clearing times by banks. State PIRGs issue scholarly reports and handy manuals (on tenants rights, small claims courts, etc.), conduct press conferences, litigate and negotiate with legislative, regulatory and business officials.
New York PIRG canvasses over one million households a year, publishes a monthly magazine called Agenda, and has a cooperative fuel buyers group that saves its 12,000 members about 20 cents per gallon of heating oil.
In April 1986, Massachusetts PIRG released the headline-making report “Hazardous Waste in Our Drinking Water” covering each town in the state. Then Mass PIRG successfully obtained voter passage of the Hazardous Waste Cleanup Initiative last November after collecting 129,000 petition signatures to place the measure on the ballot.
Fourteen years ago, Vermont PIRG won legislation that established the country’s first public dental health program for children. The students acted after their study showed serious neglect of dental care affecting rural children. ‘
New Jersey PIRG for years has sponsored the successful “streamwalkers project” which monitors violations of water pollution permits by industries. Staff and students literally walk up the rivers to detect the discharges.
President Carter praised the PIRGs, while President Reagan is antagonistic to them. While PIRGs stay strictly out of partisan political elections, they and their national arm, the U.S. PIRG in Washington, have criticized the Reagan Administration’s policies on several occasions.
It is time for the national media to pay some attention to students who are combining their studies with efforts to improve their society. They work for progressive change by using the law and their constitutional rights. They take on the Big Boys and often win. But just because these student-funded and run PIRGs do riot block traffic or take over campus buildings, is that any reason for their struggles and achievements not to appear on national television?
Hear that, Peter Jennings, Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw!