Students of the '80s: survival and escape

The students of the 1980s are more like the students of the anti-war years than they are like the ''punk'' and other protest parodies of the '70s.

Today's undergraduates, the telltale of the general culture, organize their responses increasingly around a set of unified issues. But these same students, divided in their commitments, flee in other ways from the implications of their own concern.

Whatever else is true, the articulate voices are speaking out against what they take to be threats to life. These threats represent to them the actual and possible extinction of life (both moral and biological) as we have known it. They arouse immediate emotions on and off campus and cut across, as well as go beyond, traditional social and political lines of liberal, conservative, and radical.

A catalog of felt threats to (or assaults upon or outrages against) life might be listed as follows: (1) the nuclear threat; (2) the threat to human rights through political terror and torture; (3) the ecological threats, on land , air, and sea, to most forms of life and the impairment of function, to say nothing of extinction, of many species; (4) organized and gratuitous violence; ( 5) the creation and sanction of a permanently dispossessed and suffering class of people at the bottom in America as a result of Reaganomics and related forms of imbalanced human bookkeeeping; and (6) the threat to the embryo (pro-choice).

Although students now do recognize these threats to life, and a new era of protest has begun among undergraduates and in town meetings across the land, there's another side to the unfolding era. There is an equal, perhaps larger, sense of evasion, an evasion reflected in contemporary technology and the popular arts. The evasive fads and fashions of contemporary youth culture deny the threats to life, and it is precisely this conflict between threat and evasion that contemporary educators must face and understand if they are to meet this generation directly.

What is the trajectory of this flight?

* Fascination with computers. There is a society of ''hackers,'' computer fanatics on most campuses, who flock to computer centers at night and computer courses in the day in the dual pursuit of escape and advancement. A kind of closed-circuit narcissism may become an occupational hazard. ''Each (hacker) seems to be a self-sufficient system of man and machine,'' according to Rolling Stone.

The lure of the computer (the sanctification of the bit and the chip, the magic of miniaturization) soon may begin to serve as a form of social avoidance in which the traditional Enlightenment guidance systems of reading and writing increasingly are left behind.

* TV and video art. Just when trenchant criticism has been directed at the misuses of fantasy on TV (''Fantasy Island,'' ''Love Boat,'' the ongoing drivel) , an implicit claim for evasion of social reality comes in the name of avant-garde video. When Nam June Paik surfaced as an aesthetic force, the Saturday Review critic wrote approvingly about his 1974 ''TV Buddha'': ''An 18th Century Japanese statue of the Buddha sits gazing into a screen that beams the figure's own image back at him. This is the ultimate in closed-circuit television - an object and its image locked into an electronic eternity.'' With advances in cable, earphones, and superradios, who knows how self-wired America may become?

* Fascination with space and space exploration. Movies about people going into space or ''aliens'' visiting us have obvious box office appeal; somewhat less obvious, outside the theater, is the desire actually to go into space. Many of my students would like to go for the ride (is that why they wear bee-bopper antennae?); the business students want the profits as well.

* Video and other games. Video and the computer, in their combined capacities to process and display information, to put the chip to work for the screen and video disc, provide the most obsessive forms of escape today.

If Pac-Man addicts come to believe that the threats to life, like the game, are ''just circuitry,'' or that playing Space Invaders can deal with real missiles, then a generation may find itself unable to deal with problems that aren't artificial (and should we now add videoficial?)

There is, doubtless, some poignancy in these modes of evasion - making use on a mock and miniature scale of technology and circuitry similar to the ones that actually threaten us; taking external threats symbolically into our own hands; displacing our fears; gobbling up the enemy. But we must face the true enemy, ourselves, our international counterparts. There is, finally, no closed-circuit solution to the problem of survival.

The task of humanistic education over the next decade or two ought to be to unearth the serious content of games; to relate constantly the advancements in computer and video technology to the ongoing bodily, spiritual, and aesthetic needs of people here and abroad; to insist on the application of information (food resources, demographics) to what should be caring kinds of human encounters.

If this generation is somewhat divided between those who would survive and those who would escape, the academy is divided, along parallel lines, between those who see the perilous writing on the wall and those who only would study its style and structure. We really need to overcome this division at such a late day of the thermonuclear century.

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