The new activism

Today's students do protest, but without the black armbands - or the passion - of the past.

As college students across America head back to school, most will be eager to register for courses, and reconnect with old friends.

Some, however, will also be looking forward to launching into a new season of political activism. With the Democratic convention recently completed, the Republicans meeting next week, and November looming, politics will fascinate many on college campuses this fall.

While rallies may abound, don't be deceived, say some campus denizens. "Activism" today doesn't even remotely resemble the white-hot political passion that gripped college campuses in the 1960s and '70s.

Today's student activists, for one thing, are not as overwhelmingly liberal. They are also, for the most part, more polite and more staged in their efforts. Instead of the massive sit-ins of the Vietnam-War era, this decade's student activists are more apt to rely on attention-getting actions complete with props and sometimes even costumes - events calculated to draw attention without requiring a huge number of participants.

That may be because fewer students care enough to get involved.

On many campuses, protesters dwell on the margins rather than in the mainstream of campus life. Some of their fellow students may admire their convictions - but others confess that they find activism more annoying than persuasive.

At Harvard University - where protests range from noisy antiwar rallies to smaller but equally zealous antiabortion demonstrations - many students say such actions are missing the mark.

"A lot of [the activists], liberals and conservatives alike, are fanatics or hopelessly idealistic," says Michael Soto, a Harvard senior studying Latin American development. "I'm not sure how much they actually accomplish, since it's just a small group. They are mainly annoying to the rest of the campus, and ineffectual."

Mr. Soto also questions the depth and the passion of those who protest.

"I'd put my money on most kids, at least at Harvard, being mildly informed but not really passionate and invested," he says.

Of course, not all agree. David Sapienza, a sophomore majoring in political science at Boston University, worked this summer as a coordinator at the Boston Social Forum, an international activist gathering held on the University of Massachusetts' Boston campus.

Of the Forum's more than 5,000 attendees, an estimated 40 percent were college or high school students. Over half of the forum participants were under 35.

Student activism is an integral part of democracy in the United States, insists Mr. Sapienza.

"I don't think being young has anything to do with being uninformed," he says during a trip to New York to protest the upcoming Republican National Convention. "I know some people think protesting is useless, but most of us feel an obligation to help their fellow citizen - that's just part of being human."

Sapienza also points out that students are ideally positioned to become activists. "College kids have time that others with full-time jobs might not to strongly dedicate themselves to issues they care about," he says." But what Sapienza calls availability, others call luxury.

"The youth of student activists and relative insulation from the realities of the working world let them protest in safety," says Zach Holz, a senior majoring in political science at the University of Vermont.

"Instead of rallying others, they turn people away with their belligerent tactics," he insists. "When you really try to debate with them on issues, they crumble like wet newspaper."

Liberal views still tend to predominate on many campuses. Some suggest that's due to the nature of the academic process.

"Universities are, by definition, places to challenge ideas, conventional or not, as well as places to experiment with different lifestyles," says Robert Kaufman, a political science professor at Pepperdine University in California. "Don't think that because conservatives are half the United States population that they compose an equal half of the academic world as well."

But professors report that one of the biggest differences between today's student activists and those of the Vietnam War era is a greater willingness to consider different points of view.

While many students today oppose US involvement in Iraq, antiwar sentiment is not as galvanized as it was 30 years ago.

At many schools today it is the faculty members who tend to be solidly liberal - often far more so than their students.

"The faculty here will no doubt vote 95 to 5 percent in favor of [John] Kerry, while the students may be more in the middle, perhaps as high as 35 percent for [George W.] Bush," says Robert George, professor of political science at Princeton University in New Jersey. "Nowadays, students don't see [the war] as such a black-and-white issue; they are listening to both sides of the argument."

Erica Pitkow, a junior at Goucher College who also works for a group called Peace Campaign, clearly leans left. But that doesn't mean she shuns other debate.

"For myself and the people I know, an essential part of becoming more progressive is reading conservative viewpoints and then becoming more informed about both conservative and more liberal views," she says. "This way you can intelligently discuss."

But there are also students today for whom activism means something far removed from either the debate between left and right or the war in Iraq.

Dihan Thilakaratne, a senior and chemistry major at North Texas University, says he joined a student rally when the cause was one with relevance to his life: a protest against a 7 percent hike in tuition fees.

"When other people protest things like the war or Bush, they usually get ignored or laughed at," says Mr. Thilakaratne. "But we felt like we should be taken seriously because we actually could do something for once, not just stand around with signs."

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