Optimism for Our Generation

May 022007
Authors: Tyrone Reese

“People pay for what they do, and more so what they allow themselves to become, and they pay simply by the lives they lead.”

This quote from the great James Baldwin is one of my favorites, because it comments on how anything thing you do now will have effects later on. I used this quote to represent how I felt about apathy among our generation and how we will one day pay for it. The keyword in that last sentence was felt.

Going into this article I was certain to express my distaste for the apathy of our generation. We as college students, the youth of America, have the power to create a better future. Everything I have seen presents our generation as too self-absorbed to realize that power.

We hear about it constantly. “There is low voter participation rate, lack of interest in foreign affairs, a tendency to aspire to private employment rather than public service and deep-seated skepticism about political institutions.”

There were even numbers to reinforce the argument that our generation is apathetic. In the July 30, 2006, edition of The New York Times, 1,200 students at 100 campuses were asked to identify the top problems on college campuses. Twelve percent of students said apathy was the biggest problem. This placed apathy as eighth among the top ten problems, above both awareness of world events and academic cheating.

Doing background research on apathy, I was confident in my argument, but I was mistaken.

Professor of politics at Occidental College Peter Dreier wrote an article in The Nation titled The Myth of Student Apathy, in which he argues there is still plenty of activism on campuses.

In Dreier’s article, Sonya Huber of the Center for Campus Organizing comments, “There’s a great deal of campus activism, but it hardly gets covered in the mainstream media. There are as many students involved in social activism today as at any time in the late sixties, but it’s spread around a lot of different issues.”

Never had I heard this argument before. Our generation is not apathetic but is tackling a lot of issues. Today’s campus activism is fragmented and issue-specific.

Bill Capowski, executive director of the Center for Campus Organizing said, “Students are involved in a broader array of issues than ever before, but there’s not yet a sense of a national student movement.”

This is where the misconception in my initial thoughts on our generation occurs. What I considered “caring” about an issue involved a large-scale movements, protests and revolutions – pretty much a romanticized version of the sixties for our generation, but I failed to see the things young people are doing today.

Yet I ignored something else: quality matters over quantity. Our generation does not need a mass movement or one leader. Students today are tackling many issues on a small scale and that is substantial, because many issues can get addressed and brought to the attention of others.

There are young people all around the nation doing great things.

Students have lead anti-sweatshop campaigns at schools like the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Duke. They have led fair-trade campaigns at schools like the University of California-Los Angeles and Georgetown.

Even right here at CSU, students are working to make a change. From campus-wide events like CSUnity to taking an alternative Spring Break trip, we are breaking the stereotype of apathy.

Apathy has not been able to thrive in our generation like I thought. Our generation has a new approach to activism and social change.

Dreier makes an interesting observation: “One view, often fostered by the news media, is that the persistence of poverty, racism and environmental problems proves that nothing really changes; idealism and activism don’t pay off. Another view is that by an accident the birth of today’s students missed the most exciting, never-to-be-repeated years of the century.”

Dreier concludes these views by stating, “Cynicism and nostalgia-can be used to justify apathy and indifference. That isn’t what today’s budding activists need to hear.”

Our generation has power to make a difference. We should be optimistic for the future. Apathy has not got hold of us yet. Find something you care about and fight for it.

If Baldwin was right, that we will pay for what we do, then our generation and future generations will have a wealth of benefits.

Tyrone Reese is a sophomore psychology major. His column appears occasionally in the Collegian. Replies and feedback can be send to letters@collegian.com.

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