Optimistic Portrait of Today's College Students

Defying Generation X and a host of simplistic labels, today's college students worry the nation's social institutions are falling apart - yet remain amazingly upbeat about the future.

Irreconcilable contradictions? Maybe. But not to Arthur Levine, who says 66 percent of students are optimistic because they are personally involved in improving the world in a grass-roots way that he calls "localism."

If anyone in higher education can explain such apparent contradictions it would be Dr. Levine. He has interviewed students at hundreds of colleges, writing or co-authoring 10 books - most of them about college students' attitudes and their motivations.

Levine is a practical man who believes in chipping away at education's larger problems. An ardent supporter of the liberal arts, he says colleges must provide students with a core body of knowledge that puts both personal and global problems in perspective. His goal is to keep student concerns - which are rising along with their optimism - from overwhelming them.

Today, as president of Columbia University's Teachers College in New York, Levine paints an authoritative portrait of college students. "When Hope and Fear Collide: a Portrait of Today's College Student" is his most recent effort with co-author Jeanette Cureton.

"I've never run into a group that believed more that an individual could make a difference," he said in a recent interview. "But what they see is the old order falling apart and they're not sure what's going to replace it, and they're scared."

Students in the 1980s were different, he says. That generation inherited a world shaped by Vietnam and Watergate. While optimistic about their own future, they were pessimistic about the future of the country.

But something happened in the early 1990s.

"It was like flipping a light switch," he says. Students began to be much more hopeful. It was not optimism of the "Pollyanna-ish variety," he writes in his book. It occurred as students focused more on small-scale volunteer and service activities.

Fully 64 percent of more than 9,000 college students said they were involved in some service activity, according to a 1993 Levine survey.

"I can't do anything about the theft of nuclear-grade weapons materials in Azerbaijan," one student at the University of Colorado at Boulder told him. "But I can clean up the local pond, help tutor a troubled kid, or work in a homeless shelter."

At the same time, these students are worried, burdened by college debts, family problems, and a view that government is part of the problem - not the solution.

This may explain in part why so many students shun getting involved in student government, he says. It also may explain in part the rise of "consumerism" on campus. With total college costs at $80,000 or more, students are inclined to view higher education as a product to be purchased.

"They're pragmatic," he says. "They say: 'I don't get involved in governing my bank. I don't get involved in governing the supermarket. I don't have time for student government. I'm working."

Yet activism on campus and off is at its highest point since the 1960s, he says. It often goes unnoticed because students are less radical. Instead of political confrontations, students orchestrate media events to protest high tuitions or faculty hirings.

Much activism has also focused on worsening race relations, he says. The rise of multiculturalism on campus has promoted fresh recognition of other races and cultures, but it has also accented racial divisions. Multiculturalism's inroads into academic life are the leading source of campus protests, at 39 percent of the total, he says.

Such problems can lead to what Levine sees as a dangerous negativity. A key role for colleges, he says, will be providing students with a hope that "allows them to see each tomorrow."

They can do this by requiring a core curriculum in the liberal arts that reverses an insular view of world events as merely a string of disasters and scandal. "We must teach about values, about people, about history and heritage - so that instead of seeing the negative which occurs day by day, they can see the sweep of history and the common institutions and values we share," he says.

This is "the study of hope. And I think there are lots of colleges in America that can do that."

* E-mail comments to claytonm@csps.com

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