THE NEW STUDENT ACTIVISM; AN ERA PAST AND AN ERA TO COME
Sonoma, Calif. — The two generations sit side by by side in a university auditorium -- students in blue jeans and down parkas, and working parents who were in college themselves just a decade ago.
Although a generation divides them, they are united in the message of the man who stands before them. He speaks to the standing-room-only crowd of his memories of an era past and his vision of an era to come.
"I think it is appropriate as we come to a new decade that the students of today begin to escape from the shadow of the 1960s and see themselves as the force of conscience, the force of obligation in society," he tells the overflow crowd, just as he has told similar crowds at colleges across the country.
" don't think any of us should be prisoners of our past," he continues, but adds: "We should learn what we can from the past, talk to the people who were there."
He should know what he is talking about. He is Tom Hayden, one of the most outspoken and visionary student leaders of the 1960s, a grown man now leading his own political organization into a new decade.
He is also, in the eyes of many observers, a symbol of where the 1960s meet the 1980s, an indicator of the future of student activism.
Outwardly, the spark among students today is an awakening that seems to have little to do with the activism of the '60s.
The small, yet growing, movement feeds on new issues, attitudes, and tactics. The students who are involved are so young that to them the decade of the 1960s is little more than a memory -- a chapter of history that many remember only by the violence and anger that marked its final days.
But even though names like Tom Hayden and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) mean little to the average college freshman, there is no shaking the legacy of the '60s. Whether or not they realize it, activists today stand on ground won for them in hard-fought battles by their predecessors, gains that include such taken-for-granted victories as the 18-year-old vote and the right to a voice in setting university policies.
What is more, many observers predict that the link between the two decades will become even more apparent as a "two-tiered activism" develops -- a movement fueled by students who will be aided and at times guided by the activists of 10 and 15 years ago.
It is a prediction already coming true as students across the country have joined grass-roots organizations like Massachusetts Fair Share and Common Cause, the first a state consumer group, the second, a national citizens' lobby founded by John W. Gardner, a liberal who was Lyndon Johnson's Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare.
But perhaps the most significant indicator of the two- tiered movement is that activist students have not formed their own left-wing political group, as many did in the 1960s with SDS. Instead, today's politically motivated college students are likely to become involved with leftwing organizations run by older activists like Mr. Hayden, head of the Campaign for Economic Democracy, a California- based political party, and Michael Harrington, who chairs the nationwide Democratic Socialist Organizing committee (DSOC).
less than 2,000 in both groups combined -- and hardly compares with the membership of SDS at its peak, an estimated 25,000 to 100,000 students. But it marks a beginning, one that has drawn widespread attention from observers of the 1960s.
Students for Economic Democracy (SED), the youth branch of the Hayden group, attracted some 300 California students when it was begun last fall. The student wing of DSOC, a two-year-old group, now has nearly 1,000 members, a quarter of whom have just joined in the past four months.
The embryonic student groups are linked closely with the political organizations that shelter them. But it would be unfair -- and the source of much resentment -- to imply that the students who join them are simply following leaders of another generation.
The students who lead these groups hold their own conferences to develop their own issues and organizing strategies.And they are in the midst of drafting their own political manifestoes, similar to the Port Huron statement written by SDS leaders in the 1960s.
While many students shy away from involvement in such two-tiered political organizations, they understand one crucial point: To be effective, students must not isolate themselves from the rest of the society. From the failures of the rebellious movement of the 1960s, they have learned that reforms must be acceptable to the middle class, "the keeper of society's norms."
"Change in this country happens slowly, and you can't change without playing by the rules," says Paul Hollingsworth, a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, who is involved in the California Public Interest Research Group. "Students must realize their ideals have to be translated into viable alternatives for middle Americans. You cannot take things away from people without something to offer in its place."
Because of that, most observers predict that the new movement will not be the campus phenomenon that it was in the 1960s.Students today are moving out into the community -- not to organize the poor and minorities, as Students for a Democratic Society unsuccessfully attempted to do in the mid-60s, but to build powerful coalitions.
It is a "you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours" approach to activism which many groups agree is the only way to avoid being divided and conquered. Students, blue- collar workers, senior citizens, environmentalists, and feminists are fighting together for common goals, as well as trading off support on special-interest issues.
The strategies that result are often unusual combinations of groups that just a few years ago were more likely to be working against, rather than with, one another.
At the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, for example, students and several labor organizations, including the United Automobile Workers and the Michigan AFLCIO, are consponsoring a conference that will explore ways the once-polarized groups can work together to weather an economic downturn if it comes in the 1980 s.
In New York, students who organized demonstrations for that state's recently enacted truth-in-testing bill were joined in the picket line by members of the Gray Panthers, a senior citizens' activist group. At berkeley, students have joined a number of coalitions, including a statewide group organized last month to fight for a California bottle bill and a local housing coalition that has waged a fierce rent-control campaign.
"What gives me a lot of hope is that students don't want to be 'ghetto-sized, '" says Joseph Schwartz, DSOC's 24- year-old national youth organizer. "They realize they can't do it all themselves. They don't feel alienated from American society the way students did in the '60s. What's happening now is a multigenerational, multiracial, multiconstituency movement."
It is important, however, not to overestimate the nature of today's student activism. Although most observers refust to take a "crystal ball" look at the future, they agree that before a widespread student movement can begin to jell, several missing ingredients must be found. These include:
* A single, sweeping issue. There is no lack of issues for today's hard-core activists. But they are dry; often technical issues that, one organizer explains, "don't appeal to the five senses in the way the Vietnam war did." And to get the average student involved, activists and sociologists say, it takes something more.
"The potential for unrest now is just as great as it's always been," says Dr. Alexander Astin, a professor of higher education at the University of California at Los Angeles, who has surveyed 300,000 freshmen every year since 1965 to the American Council on Education. "The difference is that we don't have the issues that we used to have."
Campus observers agree there is no lack of student readiness for protest, a mood evidenced in the recent anti- Iranian demonstrations, which flashed across college campuses overnight. Those protests, they say, indicate a simmering tenseness on campus -- an energy that many student activists say they think is up to them to harness constructively.
The one issue that many organizers say will serve as the focal point for that building sentiment is the antinuclear movement. It is a rapidly growing cause, widely covered by the news media. Like the Vietnam war, it raises moral questions. Already it has drawn the largest mass rallies since the war days, demonstrations that some observers predict will one day be seen as the beginning of activism in the 1980s.
* A far-reaching ideology. Although students in the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee and Students for Economic Democracy have begun crafting their own political credos, there is as yet no emerging political doctrine or vision that unites the splintered interests of today's activists.
Without ideology -- which one sociologists calls "the language of the future, of hope, of dreams" -- a new wave of student activism will be little more than a ripple, many researchers and activists of the 1960s argue.
"Students are going to have to think if they expect to get anything done," says Todd Gitlin, a former SDS leader who now teaches sociology at Berkeley. "They have to consider what their vision to society is.
"That vision has to be powerful enough to fuel lifetimes of work. Only vision can supply the emotional conviction that will help them survive the conflicts that will come up among them because of their different interests."
But many other observers, and many students as well, maintain that a grand political vision is not necessary and has no relevance of today's movement. In keeping with their pragmatic style, many students say a philosophy based on consumerism is enough to sustain a widespread movement. They say consumerism cuts across ideological lines, drawing support all along the political spectrum.
Still, many sociologists say that, considering all the issues that must be resolved, the time is right for a new wave of activism. Like most social movements, student activism runs in cycles. A period of rapid change or struggle, such as the 1960s, is often followed by a lull or rest, such as the 1970s, only to be followed once again by another period of social concern.
"One thing is for sure," says Seymour Martin Lipset, a Stanford University professor who has written several books on student activism. "You can't always predict when, but you can always predict there will be a new wave of activism."
The state of the economy, which played an important role in the movement of the 1960s, is expected to do the same in the coming decade, regardless of whether it improves or declines.
Sociologists say that if it improves, students may feel they have the luxury to indulge in activism once again, in much the same way that students of the 1960s could afford to be active because they did not have to worry about getting jobs. And if it continues to decline, they reason, students may finally lash out in desperation against the economic pinch.
Activists today are in a more influential position than were students of the 1960s. During that decade, universities were flooded with the postwar baby-boom generation. Many applicants where turned away. But now, with continual decline in enrollment predicted for the next decade, students are sought after. Universities and colleges courting a diminishing number of them are expected to be much more responsive to student demands.
What is more, there is what many observers see as a community readiness for a student movement. An activist network, made up of local grass-roots groups, is already in place. And many, although by no means all, of the activists of the 1960s hold positions now -- in elected office, federal agencies, and community organizing -- in which they are able to assist a new movement.In addition, there is receptivity to the aims of student activists on the part of groups that were once indifferent or hostile to them.
Most important, students themselves are ready. They have learned their lessons well and have weathered a decade of stifling self-orientation. They are a generation that, as one university administrator puts it, "understands how the levers of authority work, how channels of communication work."
They know they have a long and mostly unglamorous struggle ahead of them. They have no illusions about the fact that they may never reach their goals, that it may be up to another generation to finish the work they have begun.
But they have seen that changes can be made. And they are guided by a sense of hope, based not on lofty dreams but on a quiet conviction that needs no eloquent speeches. "You don't do it," one student says with a shrug, "if there's no hope."
No one can predict the course of student activism in the decade ahead. But many obserrvers sense the beginning of the end of an era, in which campuses were seen a slumbering giants, and the beginning of an entirely new chapter in college history.
"Why not a new student movement?" sums up Linda Kaboolian, an activist who is a graduate student in sociology at the University of Michigan. "The sentiment is there, the analysis of what needs to be done is there, and the issues are coming."
She leans forward in her chair and asks again, "So why not?"