Where did the student activists go?

Jessica Joslin

In the 1960s, Northwestern students tore down the fences that once surrounded the university and blocked Sheridan Road as a demonstration against the Vietnam War. In the early 1980s, students and Evanston activists jointly protested U.S. intervention in Latin America. In the mid-1990s, students held a hunger strike at The Rock to demand an Asian American Studies Program.

Where did these students go?

The lack of large-scale significant student activism is not as simple as a problem of apathy. NU has a vibrant progressive community and students here are politically engaged.

There is a nearly endless stream of speakers and events, and NU students, in conjunction with the American Studies Department, host a hugely successful annual human rights conference attracting students from across the country.

One factor that helps explain the drop in student activism is the decline of the religious left. I mentioned a few weeks ago in a column that a recent UCLA study found that eight out of ten students attended religious services in the past year and that same number claim to believe in God.

There’s no reason why conservatives should monopolize religious dialogue. Once upon a time, the left routinely invoked faith to support its politics. Hark back to the days of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the religious rhetoric of the civil rights movement.

Students may not realize, but much of the opposition to Vietnam was within liberal Catholic and Protestant communities.

If a progressive voice is going to prevail, it must not ignore communities of faith. One of the most successful examples of this was a conversation that took place last year between members of Rainbow Alliance and the University Christian Ministry.

Events like this not only allow for dialogue, but acknowledge the significant number of students of faith and create opportunities to incorporate them into the progressive movement if they so choose.

A second reason for the decline is simply that the current student generation is more inclined to obey authority than its predecessors.

Students grew up in relative global stability and – until 9/11 – economic prosperity. Given those conditions today’s students simply don’t feel a need to rebel.

All of this begs the question: What will it take to stimulate this generation of student activists? Or are they, as generational theorists suggest, simply uninspirable?

When Ralph Nader visited NU, he suggested that students advocate for disclosure of how the university invests. This is an issue that has arisen several times in the past. Anti-apartheid activism in the 1980s was all about demanding that private or public institutions remove investments from South Africa.

Will that be the tipping point for NU students? It remains to be seen.

Whatever the form, it is time to find ways to reenergize a collective and poignant student voice.