Disengaged Freshmen

ANOTHER one of those polls has been completed, aimed at uncovering the mystery of what goes on in the minds of the young.

The pollsters, sponsored by the Higher Education Research Institute of the University of California at Los Angeles, interviewed 333,703 freshmen at 670 colleges and universities - no small accomplishment in itself.

A poll may be judged a success if it comes up with one big surprise, suitable for compressing into a headline. The hot news this time is that the Class of 1998 seems to be less interested in news than any freshman class in the past 29 years. Fewer than 1 in 3 freshmen - 31.9 percent, to be exact - thought that ``keeping up with political affairs'' is an important goal in life, compared with 57.8 percent in 1966 and 42.4 percent as recently as 1990.

Only 1 out of 6 students said they frequently discuss politics. In 1968, during the Vietnam War, almost twice that number talked about politics.

Nor is it just beltway politics that is the measure of interest here. Student concern for environmental issues has declined proportionately.

If all this were only an academic matter! But there is every reason to believe that adults are traveling the same downward curve as these late adolescents. How else to explain the steady regression over the years in the number of voters who exercise their prerogative at election time? Here is where a yawn of political indifference crosses the line into something like dereliction of democratic duty.

A popular rationalization for tuning out the news is helplessness. What's the good of being informed, the voice of cynicism asks, if there's nothing anyone can do about Sarajevo or Chechnya or even the drive-by shooting in the neighborhood?

Excuses for ignorance won't wash. There's always a choice. A democracy where nobody votes, where nobody bothers to learn enough to vote, will not long remain a democracy.

Nor is it possible to deny that knowledge translates into power. The revolution that has overturned the culture of smoking began at the grass roots. The gun culture may be another pattern subject to repeal on the grounds of indignant public awareness.

Do the freshmen understand this side of the news? Perhaps it wouldn't hurt if all college students took a course surveying how informed and committed and often forgotten individuals have fought for freedom in one form or another - including the freedom of academic inquiry all freshmen take for granted.

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