New directions for student activism

Steven Conn & Claudia Horwitz

August 06, 1991|By Steven Conn & Claudia Horwitz

DURING THE past decade, student activists have been the subject of some clinical curiosity, most of it concluding that we are not interested in public affairs. On the contrary, students did not disappear from political activism during the 1980s.

A quick survey of some of the major movements of the past 10 years, which looks beyond the media image of the self-absorbed college student driven by a relentless pursuit of a BMW, suggests that students remained the vital part of progressive politics during the Reagan years: the spectacular growth of organizations like Greenpeace and PIRGs (Public Interest Research Groups) came about largely through the sneaker tread of a small army of students; at dozens of campuses, students brought the issue of apartheid back to the attention of the country, at least for awhile; and the fight to end discrimination against gay men and women in the military is taking place primarily on college campuses.

More significantly, community service since the mid-1980s has attracted and continues to attract more student recruits than any other social justice activity. From elementary school tutoring, to AIDS education, tens of thousands of students are involved in small scale projects in their local neighborhoods, whose goals are no more grand -- though no less important -- than to make a difference in the lives of a few individuals.

So the good news is that students remain active and engaged with a variety of issues and in a variety of ways, despite spending our formative years in Ronald Reagan's America. If student activists expect to become a more potent force for social change, though, there are several problems we must confront. Most frustrating of these is our inability to come out from behind the shadows of the 1960s. Political activity in the 1980s, especially demonstration and protest, was invariably compared to that of the 1960s. Almost reflexively, articles or broadcasts covering nuclear freeze demonstrations, divestment protests, or most recently demands for peace in the gulf being: "it was like the '60s . . . "

The vast number of students who work on community service projects have had a difficult time defining their relationship to politics. Indeed, community service may be attractive to many students precisely because it appears separate and distinct from the divisiveness and mediocrity of mainstream politics; the past 15 years have not offered much in the way of political inspiration. Few of us believe that the answers to the problems we confront can be found in the electoral process.

As a result, many students in the community service movement have taken a position of political neutrality which is hopelessly naive, and which fosters two dangerous ideas: first, that service is something that can be done in one's spare time, like a hobby; second, that very small commitments are completely adequate. As it happens, these two ideas are entirely consonant with PTC George Bush's, and indeed form a basis for what passes for his domestic policy.

Oddly, however, it may be George Bush's vapid Points of Light project which is pushing students to evaluate their community service more critically. Whatever our views of politics may be, increasing numbers of us understand that George Bush is part of the problem, not part of the solution, and the last thing we want to be is part of his collection of dim bulbs. Those who insist that community service is apolitical fail to acknowledge a central truism: Any activity which has social justice as its goal is, by its very nature, political. The question is not whether community service is "political," but rather, what kind of politics it will have.

Students need to develop an ethic of community involvement which demands that all involved see themselves as members of the community in which they work, not simply as occasional do-gooding volunteers. The problems this nation now confronts require thoughtful and comprehensive solutions. Developing those solutions will demand the kind of patience generally absent in this society. A new alliance between service and politics of community involvement can build on the broad coalition of students already attracted to community work, and turn their interest into long-term commitment.

Student activism during the past 10 years has been marked by a decided concern for the pragmatic and the feasible, rather than for large-scale efforts. Thus far, we have been afraid to be innovators. Students must now think not simply about what can be done today, but rather what might be done together in the future, and begin to dream the big dreams that are the stuff of which social change is made.

Steven Conn, a 1987 graduate of Yale University, is pursuing a Ph.D. in history at the University of Pennsylvania. Claudia Horwitz, a 1988 graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, directs the "Empty the Shelters" program in Philadelphia.

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