He's talking about their generation

January 10, 1995|By Victor Paul Alvarez | Victor Paul Alvarez,Contributing Writer

College students may not agree with everything Paul Rogat Loeb has to say about them, but they have to admit he's done his homework.

That's more than he can say for some of you.

Mr. Loeb began researching this book in the early '80s while lecturing on college campuses about citizen involvement in critical public issues. He followed this up with hundreds of student interviews from 1987 through 1993. The observations and questions that arose from those interviewed, and Mr. Loeb's passionate analysis of his subjects' responses, make up the bulk of "Generation at the Crossroads."

In fairness, the book balances each story of failure and apathy with one of success and activism. The book's subtitle, "Apathy and Action on the American Campus," perfectly summarizes this even-handed approach to the contemporary campus.

Some students drink, some don't; some are politically involved, some aren't; some think they can change the world, some don't know how to change their major.

Mr. Loeb deserves immediate credit for not patronizing this generation.

He has seen, as few people in the media have, that America's youths are too dynamic and diverse to be categorized as slackers or Generation Xers or even the MTV generation. MTV is successful because it doesn't patronize this generation; it doesn't ask 50-year-old reporters to tell an 18-year-old audience what clothes they're wearing and why Rage Against the Machine and Green Day are popular. That approach never sounds genuine, and this generation won't buy it. Pay attention, CNN. You want these kids to watch the news? Talk to them, not at them.

Mr. Loeb talks to them, and he comes to the table with facts and feeling.

"I found that these students were not simply greedy or indifferent: their attitudes were far more complex. I found false the images of a generation almost innately deficient, as if missing some key gene for concern. The students hardly led America's retreat from responsibility. Rather, they had come of age under the sway of political, cultural, and economic currents that convinced citizens in general to seek personal well-being over a common social good."

How did it feel to grow up "with the media fawning over the 'lifestyles of the rich and famous' while savings and loan institutions collapsed, bankruptcies soared, and average real wages continued to fall, opening up a greater gap between rich and poor than at any point since the eve of the Great Depression"?

It felt, and still feels, frightening.

But, as Mr. Loeb points out later, it's no excuse for apathy.

This book will certainly find its way onto a required-reading list for a college course about culture or politics. And it deserves it.

Mr. Loeb is thorough, fair and smart in his approach. He doesn't preach, and he keeps his nostalgia for activism's glory days of the '60s to a modest minimum.

What clouds his message at times is his writing.

The book will probably be read in colleges courses because it reads like a textbook. His writing is often dense and his approach repetitive.

But if read with patience, this book will reward the young people it presents and the older generations who don't understand them.

Mr. Alvarez is a writer and a student at Towson State University.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Generation at the Crossroads: "Apathy and Action on the American Campus"

Author: Paul Rogat Loeb

Publisher: Rutgers University Press

Length, price: 500 pages, $24.95

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