A POLITICAL science professor at the University of Virginia hands out buttons and T-shirts that proclaim: ``Politics Is A Good Thing.'' But college students these days seem to disagree. Across the country, educators report that student interest in politics and government is waning. Students shun political science courses, fail to turn out for political events, and after graduation, disdain government service.
Paul Allen Beck, a political scientist at Ohio State University, says, ``Young people see politics as a dirty business.''
Mervin Field, a California pollster, observes, ``I have lectured consistently for over 40 years in political science classes. Now I find in both the CSU [California State University] and UC [University of California] systems, the fervor, the interest is declining.''
Several factors are blamed for student apathy. Skeptics say today's students are more self-centered, more interested in making money, less interested in self-sacrifice. Others blame the Reagan-era mentality, which disdained big government. Some say the media is at fault for spreading cynicism about America's government and leaders.
There are many indications, however, that college students are just following the lead of their elders. Today, fewer adults vote or participate in politics than at any time in recent memory.
Mr. Field sees evidence of apathy on many campuses. ``The classes are smaller, and the level of questions reflects disinterest and skepticism,'' he says.
At the University of Virginia, political scientist Larry Sabato has tried to turn this around. He's formed a student political action committee, whose members get red-white-and-blue T-shirts proclaiming: ``Politics Is A Good Thing.''
Dr. Sabato concedes there is widespread skepticism among today's college students about politics. But he insists that there's a large reservoir of student idealism just below the surface.
``They really want to be involved,'' he says. ``They want to see some purpose, some method to the madness. I think [apathy] is ... a product of our times. But it is ... a measure of our failure as educators, too.''
At the University of California at Berkeley, probably the nation's premier campus for political activism, political scientist Austin Ranney reports that student involvement is substantially less than in the 1970s and early 1980s.
Dr. Ranney doesn't find the current quietude surprising, however. He observes that student enthusiasm for politics goes through cycles. There were upswings of student activism in the 1930s (because of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal), the 1940s (World War II), the 1960s (civil rights), the 1970s (Vietnam), and the early 1980s (conservative student excitement about Ronald Reagan).
But there are also periods of quiet, such as the 1950s and the late 1980s, when there are no burning national issues.
Ranney adds that earlier student activism was often exaggerated. ``Even when you look at those rioting and demonstrating during Vietnam, they were small minorities,'' he says.
Berkeley was always known as active, he says. But it has 28,000 students, and perhaps 1,000 would turn out for an antiwar protest. So the idea that campuses were aflame is incorrect, he says.
However, Dr. Beck feels young people are not only more disinterested in politics and causes today - they are turned off.
Beck says students see politics as something done by ``them,'' not by ``us.'' And he finds this disturbing.
``In a democratic nation, when there is a big gulf between politics and ordinary citizens, there is real danger. It discourages talented people from going in and out of politics.''
Beck feels other factors are also at work. Many US voters - not just students - have a different attitude about government today. Two decades ago, there was a ``tremendous amount of idealism that good people doing good things could make a difference'' for the world by working in government. That is no longer so.
Ranney also concedes that in the days of Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, many students thought government service was a terrific idea. FDR, he says, ``captured the idealism of youth.''
Earl Black, a political scientist at the University of South Carolina, notes that cynicism today spreads through the American population.
``There is a general distrust and suspicion of a lot of activity at the national level,'' Dr. Black says. Recent scandals involving former House Speaker Jim Wright and other officials ``help to keep that feeling alive.''
Beck says one answer to apathy may be in the classroom. Teachers need to explain that politics is everybody's business.
He says teachers can point out that ``serious problems get pushed into the public arena because we can't handle them in any other way. That's why politics is so full of clashes: The easy things have been handled elsewhere. When things can't be resolved in the private sector, they get dumped in the lap of Congress.''