A Slanted View Of Student Activism




By Paul Rogat Loeb

Rutgers University Press

460 pp., $24.95

ON college campuses that were once hotbeds of activism, much of today's political fervor has to be imported. Outside political advocates from both the left and right are vying to get their message across to receptive young audiences.

Conservative foundations have funded right-wing journals such as the Dartmouth Review at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. And liberal groups support campus political events and student publications promoting left-leaning causes.

Paul Rogat Loeb spent the late 1980s and early '90s traveling to more than 100 college campuses to lecture about peace activism. In effect, he was a traveling salesman for the social and political causes of the left. Along the way, he decided to write a book about the political attitudes of contemporary college students. The result is ``Generation at the Crossroads: Apathy and Action on the American Campus.''

Loeb's goal was noble: to gain a fresh perspective on a generation long-maligned as greedy and apathetic. Unfortunately, instead of peeling away the opaque varnish of stereotypes, Loeb looks at everything through the lens of his own political views.

He defines the college students he meets as either activists or ``adapters,'' lauding the activists and deriding the adapters. These nonactivist students view social concerns and political protest as ``dangerously impractical,'' Loeb writes. ``They share a sense of a world increasingly harsh, in which conscience is a luxury.''

Adapters take the easy way out, Loeb implies. ``In recent years, political withdrawal has been the automatic track at most schools,'' he writes. ``Students have to consciously work to depart from it.''

Despite Loeb's blatant biases, he offers some perceptive insights into the attitudes of this generation of college students. He understands, for example, that financial pressures and changing economic realities play an important role in the more cautious attitudes of modern students.

``In the Vietnam era, students came of age during the longest sustained period of economic growth in American history,'' Loeb writes. ``Most took for granted that once they had made it through college, they'd find a choice of decent jobs. Students now face both a tougher passage through school and tougher times when they get out.''

In the face of their society's general disdain for putting the common social good above individual achievement, American college students have taken on a surprising range of causes, Loeb ends up arguing.

Columbia University students sparked a nationwide movement for divestment from South Africa in protest against apartheid. University of Nebraska students took up the cause of the imperiled family farms many of them grew up on. ``Greeks for Peace'' at the University of Michigan brought controversial issues up for debate among fraternities and sororities. Students at the City University of New York refused to attend classes for four weeks in protest against tuition increases.

Loeb discovers that the range of views among college students - even on a single campus - can run the full spectrum. Yet rather than letting the students debate the issues and present their sides in his book, Loeb interjects too much of himself on every page.

He tells the story of a class where he spoke at the University of Washington. ``I left feeling it had been a fruitful session,'' Loeb writes. ``But when it came time for the students to sum up the interchange in brief essays, I got some angry responses. Students said I was judgmental, a missionary, a preacher.''

Loeb shrugs off the students' complaints. Maybe he should have listened more carefully. Those very qualities - taking a missionary approach, being overly judgmental, and preaching - are what ultimately mar the message of his book.

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