Warsaw — Several students clustered around a table in Warsaw University's main courtyard, buying T-shirts from the student faction of Solidarity. The T-shirts bore the large block letters "EA" with the words "Elements Anti- socjalistycny" spelled out under them. They mean "antisocialist element."
"It is all a joke," one young woman explained as she shelled out 150 zlotys for a bright yellow short. "This is a takeoff on the Soviet criticism of Poland."
Ever since Poland's independent trade union, Solidarity, burst on the scene last August, Soviet criticism of the reform movement has centered on "antisocialist elements," saying they threatened to undermine the Communist system.
Since spring, the T-shirts have been visible all over the sprawling campus in central Warsaw though no one would say who was producing them. The students fold up their table and disappear as soon as they have sold out.
"This is all harmless," the young woman said. "We are just letting off some steam."
Judging by the lack of activism on campus, she reflected the feeling of the majority of the students there. They seem interested in the new movement, even titillated by it, but they are cautious about getting involved.
Although Warsaw University -- the country's largest and most important school -- was the scene of bloody student riots in 1968, the mood on the campus is quiet as the rest of Poland grapples with its newfound democracy.
In the crumbling main courtyard of the university, posters advertising NZS (the Independent Student Union) and Solidarity activities compete for student attention with announcements of dances and trips to the mountains. The only notable demonstrations organized by NZS this spring were a forum on the 1968 student riots and a protest march demanding the release of political prisoners.
Only 20 percent of Warsaw University students took part in countrywide warning strike last February that was started by students at Lodz University in central Poland. They eventually won agreement from the government to a series of demands, including fewer required courses in Marxism and a fairer examination system.
A later general warning strike called by Solidarity drew a larger response at Warsaw University, but on the whole, Poland's 500,000 students in higher education have lagged behind the workers movement.
Polish workers occupied the Gdansk shipyards in August. By November they had won legal registration of their unprecedented independent union. Polish students did not win approval of NZS until March.
Only about 20 percent of the students at Warsaw belong to NZS; another 20 percent remain members of the old Communist Party- oriented Socialist Union of Polish Students. Warsaw University did not have a political student newspaper until NZS began its publication, Glos (Voice), this year.
Tomasz, a law student wearing the blue jeans and green fatigue jacket reminiscent of earlier student movements, said the students' apparent lack of active interest in the new democracy was because" this is all new to us."
"We need to teach the 60 percent doing nothing how to operate in our new, more open society," the NZS member said.
But many observers doubt the students will get that interested. They cite the atmosphere left over from the 1968 riots and a sense of self-interest on the part of the students.
The 1968 fighting broke out after the government canceled the staging of a 19 th century play be Adam Mickiewicz which indicts Russia and romanticizes Polish nationalism. Students protested and police went in with clubs, igniting a month of fighting that resulted in a government purge of activists who were demanding automony for the university.
Many professors and students left the country. Others lost their student status and stipends and could not get jobs. Many complained they were unable to get passports.
"Only the mediocre professors were left," one observer said. "The students just fell in line and, except for the Lodz protest, that is pretty well where they have stayed."
Mirek, a physics major active in NZS, was hopeful students could be educated to a more activist role. But he admitted it would be difficult. "They don't want to be marked as activists," he said. "Down the road, it could hurt them when they are looking for jobs."
There appears to be little fear of police activity on the campus, although Mirek said he had spotted undercover agents at some NZS meetings on the campus.
Jadzie, an English major from southwestern Poland who is not active in NZS because "I have my own problems, my own life" and a boyfriend in the West, said: "No one is afraid of the police. What can they do to you? Nothing. There are too many people speaking freely now."
Even so, students are not eager to jump on the NZS bandwagon. Polish students represent the postwar generation that has grown up without the harsh deprivation their parents faced. Today's students expect more from life -- an interesting job instead of just a job and the material goods that go with it. They see the university as their entree and do not want to jeopardize it.
Most decent jobs in Poland require a university degree, and competition to get into a school is keen. In some disciplines, only 1 out of 10 applicants is accepted. Poland, with a $27 billion debt, is barely able to feed its 36 million people, let alone expand educational facilities. Some programs have been cut from five to four years; the universities stretch their teaching days from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. to get maximum use of facilities. Some students spend as many as 40 hours a week in classrooms.
Zywila, a young woman from a peasant family near Warsaw, emphasized the importance of getting her degree. "I am the only one from my family to get this far," she said. "It is a great honor for me and my family. Being a student means I was chosen and I will have opportunity."
She said her studies left her no time for NZS, then added, "I support what they are doing. They are helping us and I will surely be a Solidarity member once I start working. But, I cannot think about that now. My first priority is finishing my studies."
Elka, who is studying Serbo-Croatian, was more blunt. "I want a job with eventual financial prospects," she said. "I do not want to have to live from hand to mouth."
Mirek is hopeful students will not wait too long before they take a stand. NZS holds lectures on the campus, incorporating the former "flying university," which held clandestine sessions to present ideas activists felt were being suppressed by the university.
"It is especially important for the students to get the truth in their education," he said. "They are the future leaders, the intelligentsia."
"We will do our business slowly but surely," he said. "No one can stop the process of democratization that we have begun."