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Did activism graduate with '60s?

By Sara TerryStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / January 15, 1980

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.

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"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: