Evolutionary student activism

Three years ago, students at my university took to the streets in mass protest. The issue was not Palestine or East Timor, nor was it the latest manifestation of what the young like to call American neo- imperialism. The subject that really got kids agitated was their right to hold "bops" in the Student Union past 1 a.m. They rebelled over their right to dance.

Sixties sentimentalists rue the way today's students, even those in sacred centers of radicalism like Paris, London, Berlin, and Berkeley, seem to have sold out to the establishment. Though the Iraq conflict resembles the Vietnam quagmire more with each passing day, students have remained conspicuously silent. They sit in Starbucks drinking coffee picked by poor peasants in Colombia, oblivious to the injustice swirling in their cappuccino. They listen to Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth" on their iPods, but have no clue what the song means. Images of Che Guevara adorn their T-shirts, but they know not what he did.

But perhaps it's unfair to compare stereotypes of students past and present. Today's lot may be apolitical, but, to be honest, the '60s were not quite as we baby boomers remember. Polls taken back then found that the most common causes of student discontent were not Vietnam or civil rights, but the quality of food in cafeterias and the lack of coed residence halls.

Student radicalism, anywhere and anytime, tends always to be exaggerated. At the height of the political turmoil in colonial America, students at Harvard boycotted classes and stoned university buildings because, in their words, "our butter stinketh." (Surely the best slogan ever to grace a placard.)

In other words, student protesters - usually a tiny minority - often agitate for incredibly mundane reasons, rather like my student boppers.

So, activism has never quite been what we nostalgically remember. That said, these are quiet times on campus. When I came to Britain in 1980 to do postgraduate work, Margaret Thatcher had cleaved the country like a coconut. Every action by her government elicited an equal and opposite reaction by our little army of oppressed students. We sat in shabby flats and plotted the revolution - by midnight we actually imagined we would succeed. We took to the streets over Cruise Missiles, welfare cuts, and the Falklands War. Agitation was our method of social interaction - why dance when you could march?

We lived life according to a very rigid set of preconceptions imposed upon us by our dogma. All workers were oppressed, all middle-class people were parasites. The welfare check was a badge of credibility. Anyone in uniform - whether Army colonel or meter maid - was automatically a fascist. Because we hated the Americans, we loved the Soviets, who were liberating the poor people of Afghanistan and Central America.

In retrospect, it all seems so naive. We rushed from protest to protest with hastily painted placards. Meanwhile, the government went on with its program, oblivious to the flea on its tail. Politics was easy because the rules were clear, and one knew whom to hate by the way they dressed. Analysis of issues was unnecessary because the world was painted in black and white.

Mrs. Thatcher and Ronald Reagan dominated politics in the 1980s, and their domination caused massive acrimony. No matter how futile opposition was, we opposed with vigor. But all we got from a decade of shouting was some strained vocal chords and a lot of irrational hatred.

Nowadays, issues seem blurred and labels irrelevant. Party lines are no longer precisely drawn. Politicians on the right occasionally sound reasonable, and those on the left sometimes seem like idiots, something I could not have said 20 years ago.

Granted, radicalism often recedes along with one's hairline, but my own personal transformation can't be explained simply by the passage of time. I still believe there are causes to fight, and I admire those who take to the streets in peaceful protest.

But something has changed. The dogmatism has been removed from politics, so that each issue is judged on its merits instead of by rigid application of party lines. Critics might argue that there are no principles left in politics, but I remember a time when principles were an excuse not to think.

Perhaps the apathy that political commentators deride is, in truth, an indicator of public satisfaction. Ordinary people do not want their lives complicated with political argument; they protest only when governments go too far. Politics might seem bland today, but does anyone really feel nostalgic about the caldron of discontent that was the 1960s?

My students today want success, stability, fulfillment, and family - all pretty noble goals. They're moved to argue when they perceive injustice, but they have no time for knee-jerk dissent. Old radicals like me have a lot to learn from them.

My first-year students were mostly born in 1984; they have no knowledge of Britain's turbulent 1980s. They're much more broad-minded and accepting than we were back then. Tolerance comes naturally to them. The rest of us have had to learn it the hard way.

• Gerard DeGroot is a professor of modern history at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

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