Although this country saw a wave of student activism in 2008 as young people participated in President Obama’s election campaign, that enthusiasm has tapered off in recent years. According to Paul Loeb, author of Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in Challenging Times, cynicism plays a large part in students’ current lack of involvement. “You get a series of disappointments, and I think it feeds the cynicism”, Loeb said in an interview in The Chronicle of Higher Education. “…So many students who were knocking on doors in 2008 certainly weren’t doing it in November of 2010” (Sieben).
But is cynicism an irremediable attitude? Recently I attended a lecture by Dr. Cornel West at a university where I once taught. West, noted author and Princeton University professor, encouraged students to work together for change in such matters as protesting budget cuts to Florida HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities). West suggested a popular activist tactic of the 1960s: the teach-in.
The teach-in is an open gathering or forum, usually on a political topic, geared toward raising consciousness but also encouraging actions to be undertaken by the group. For example, on March 2 of this year, Ohio University teachers and students led a teach-in to protest higher education budget cuts in that state. The opening speech was delivered by Judith Grant, Director of the Women’s and Gender Studies Department at Ohio U, who said that declining state support and the resulting tuition hikes was creating a situation where middle class students could no longer afford college. Tyler Barton, a senior chemistry major, continued in this vein and criticized the current notion of college as job training. “The purpose of higher education is not to make money,” he said (Irby and Rumer).
If faculty want students to become more politically active, they must lead the way, just as they did during the 1960s. In addition to teach-ins, faculty can push for courses that highlight social change, as did a friend of mine who serves as an Associate Professor at a major university. Concerned about student apathy, she created a course on political activism and currently teaches the subject to 20 pupils, inviting guest speakers to lecture on personal experiences whenever possible.
Yes, students, along with others, are cynical about the possibility of social change these days. But given a chance to voice an opinion and encouraged by teachers on appropriate ways to take a stand, today’s students may just surprise us. “The challenge is to get students involved so they’re engaged before a crisis hits,” says Paul Loeb, “and so their actions can help our country pursue wiser and more humane paths than those that have landed us in the situations we now face” (Sieben).
Irby, Kate and Rumer, Anna, “Students, Faculty Host Teach-in to Protest Education Cuts”, The New Political. Retrieved March 24, 2011 from http://thenewpolitical.com
Sieben, Lauren, “The Question of Whether Your Actions Will Matter is a Harder One to Get Past,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 18, 2011, Vol. LVII, No. 28