Did activism graduate with '60s?
Berkeley, Calif. — The jarring rock 'n' roll chords blast the noon air. A blue-jean-clad guitarist steps up to a microphone and hails the lunchtime crowd of a few hundred students which has gathered to hear his band play. A garish banner proclaiming "Rock 'n' Revolution" hangs on the university building behind him.
"The sound of the '80s isn't going to be just music; in fact, it won't be much music at all," he prophesies grimly. "It'll be the sound of people in the streets, marching and yelling, throwing tricks and overturning cop cars."
Just 10 years ago, such words fueled mass protests and demonstrations on this campus. But today only a few clenched fists shoot up in response. One thing is clear about this guitarist's vision of students in the 1980s: He is strumming revolution to the wrong decade.
But if 1960s-style protest is not likely to be the hallmark of the 1980s, neither is the "apathy" of the 1970s.
For today, a student movement is building slowly and subtly on campuses nationwide. At the close of a decade that fostered the "me" generation, many students appear ready once again to become involved with the world around them.
Visits to universities across the country and interviews with dozens of students, administrators, researchers, sociologists, and former activists show that the new movement has little of the revolutionary fervor and idealism that were at the heart of protest in the 1960s.
Instead, the movement is rooted in a dogged, pragmatic, and very sophisticated activism. It is a step-by- step thrust for reform, which one former activist describes as "a lot more boring than the '60s, but also a lot more real."
It is sparked by young people who have learned how to negotiate change from within the system, by students who are no longer taking to the streets -- at least not as a first resort. They have learned instead how to fight, and often win, their battles in state legislatures, courtrooms, and board rooms.
"We have traded in our placards for memos," says one student body president.
The number of hard-core activists is still a very small percentage of the campus population. But there has begun to appear in the past few years a growing student interest in the issues activists are raising -- from the spiraling costs of higher education to the question of nuclear power.
The concerns are complex and diverse, with no single, all-consuming focus like that provided by the Vietnam war of the civil-rights movement. Almost all the issues fit under the broad heading of "quality of life." And almost all reflect a growing desire to control issues that affect the students' lives and futures -- whether it is having a voice in deciding which university professors receive tenure or outlining proposals or community solar energy projects.
"The focus of concern is changing," explains Dave Barenberg, the 20-year-old speaker of the student senate at the University of Massachussets, Amherst. "There's more concern, to some extent, with society and how it relates directly to you.
"There's been a change in organizing strategy. There's less dogma now. Students are less apt to be organizing around overthrowing capitalism than they are to be organizing around trying to stop the trustees from raising tuition."
No one can say for sure that student activism in the 1980s will remain largely within the system, with only a very few hard-core workers, or whether an issue like nuclear power will once again spur sustained and widespread protest.
But a simmering, growing student readiness for activism has prompted many observers to ask the question "Why now?" No one knows for sure, but among the forces helping to wake up students today are the following:
* An acute sense of restricted opportunities. The unbridled optimism and unlimited economic opportunity that nurtured the movement of the 1960s have given way to a world in which America seems to be severely strapped, both at home and abroad.
Many students feel they are confronted by diminishing power and control everywhere they look: in Iran, where an apparently helpless United States was stymied by a band of students who stormed the American Embassy and held its staff hostage; in Detroit, where the nearly bankrupt Chrysler Corporation asked the federal government for $1.5 billion to help bail it out; and in the country's immediate economic future, which, with spiraling inflation and the threat of recession, seems to hold only limited promise.
"This is the first generation in years where people will have less than their fathers had," sums up Dan Carol, a University of Michigan senior majoring in philosophy.
"How do we deal with that?" he asks. "America's not that strong anymore. People have to realize they can't look up to their leaders of their government, waiting for a handout. . . . People are going to have to start saying, 'Let's do it for ourselves.'"
* A growing awareness of individual power. Jarred by the prospect of a not-too-rosy future, some students have begun to "come out of the fog" of self-absorption, as one student organizer puts it. They have rediscovered the conviction that spurred students a decade ago: that individuals canm take control of the forces that shape their lives.
Few doubt, however, that the nose-to-the-grindstone, career-oriented attitude still prevails among the vast majority of college students. But there is also a growing sentiment among a small number of students that "playing by the rules" is no longer enough. They have found that a college degree is no longer the carte blanche it once was in the job market. And they have soured on the notion that looking out for "No. 1" is the way to face the world.
These students are taking a hard look at society, at how the country's "economic pie" -- no longer seen as ever-expanding -- should be distributed; at what they see as overwhelming corporate power; and at whether all the frivolities and excesses of modern living are what a satisfying life is all about.
That questioning has propelled them from the sidelines into the thick of events they seek to control. And what students are finding there is that, unlike Don Quixote, they can still against windmills and win.
"People [students] are really to have some kind of effect through the work they can do politically," says Tessa Rouverol, a 21-year-old student at the University of California at Berkeley, who has been active on a number of issues. "There's a real sense that they can make a difference.
"What you saw initially as the economy got worse was that people became more individualistic and more career- oriented. That was the big line, that people were looking out for themselves. I think what people are finding is [That if] they look out for themselves, it doesn't work."
* Nostalgia for the 1960s. Although there is a new vision of activism among today's campus leaders, many other students feed on a romantic longing for the 1960s -- a movement the current college generation was too young to be a part of or even to remember.
It is nostalgia most likely to prompt involvement in highly visible, "glamorous" issues like nuclear power. That movement, says one student organizer, "has clearly captured students' imaginations."
"Everybody wants to go to a demonstration," says Michael Harrington, chairman of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee and a longtime activist. "I think now students are saying to each other, 'We're going to get through four years of college and we've never even had a sit-in a sombebody's office.' It's the legend of the '60s and it's very romanticized."
The decade of the 1960s, however, was not the golden era many students seem to think it was. Although there was more vocal and visible involvement, sociologists and former activists say, it was not a time when all students were active or even cared about being involved. It was a period led by a handful of activists, they say, just as social movements throughout history have always been run by small groups of committed workers.
"We've mythologized the '60s," says Arthur Levine, who has just completed a survey on college campuses in the 1970s for the Carnegie Council. "We believe there was this character in the '60s who participated on around him. And that's not true, either."
What was true of the 1970s, many campus observers say, is that widespread support for activism dropped off drastically. Many students, weary of protest and pinched by economic recession, turned their energies inward, concentrating on their own careers and futures.
Such concerns, however, have been exaggerated as mass apathy, many argue. Confronted with a badly torn society, which had been shocked by the Kent State killings and further shaken by the Watergate scandal, students did not stop caring. They simply became more wary and cynical, harboring fewer illusions than the students of a decade before. They had, one sociologist says, "suffered a loss of innocence."
But there remained a small margin of activists who, having learned lessons from the 1960s, began to move their protests within the system.
The early 1970s saw the beginnings of two of the most powerful and effective channels of student activism that exist today: student lobbies, on both the state and federal levels, and Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs), the Ralph Nader-conceived organizations that are funded and run by students, with the help of hired professionals.
There also continued to be sporadic bursts of protest. The most visible and sustained of these was the South African divestiture movement, which continues, to a lesser degree, on many campuses today.
"There's been something of political activity all through the 1970s," says Richard Flacks, who has written some of the most definite material about the 1960s and is now chairman of the sociology department at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
"The tendency in the media has been to build up the notion that it [student activism] died -- and it had to a certain extent," he explains. "But what has remained is a hard core of students trying to influence the political process.
"There've been protests about things like budget cutting and minority student programs. It's just that they're not seen [by the media] as part of a national movement anymore, they're seen as throwbacks to the '60s."
Analysts of the campus scene say it is unlikely that whatever does happen will be defined as a 1960s-style youth revolution against the establishment. But to shrug off student restlessness or to dismiss campuses as apathetic, they say, is to misunderstand the nature of today's student population.
The ardor and anger of the 1960s is believed to have cooled into a deep commitment to a long-term struggle -- a realistic activism that slowly but surely is growing.
"You can just feel the pulse on campuses today," says Donard Ross, who with Ralph Nader wrote the book on which PIRGs are modeled. He now is executive director of the New York PIRG. "There's more interest, there's more concern, there's greater numbers of people."
"You can just feel a tempo," he repeats. "I attribute a lot of it to the growing cultural cocoon that makes it acceptable to again be an activist. You're no longer thought of as strange."
Next: From marches to memos