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February 1999
Volume 17, Number 2

In Praise of Student "Apathy"
by Morgan N. Knull

To hear educators and activists talk, one might actually believe that apathy threatens to become the defining existential feature of American youth.

One hardly need recite the litany of the numerous civic shortcomings regularly imputed by youth organizers eager to demonstrate the self-absorption of American teenagers, college students, and young professionals. There is the low voter participation rate, the lack of interest in foreign affairs, a disturbing tendency to aspire to private employment rather than public service, and deep-seated skepticism about political institutions.

Even the now widespread practice of requiring high-school students to perform community service seems unable to inspire civic sensibility in them. When the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA surveyed incoming college freshman last year, it found that 73 percent of those polled a record high had performed volunteer work during the previous year, yet fewer than 25 percent deemed it important to "participate in a community action program."

In the eyes of central planners who make careers of organizing other people's lives, these statistics are particularly alarming, for they suggest that not even the force of governmental compulsion can pry American youth from their selfish ways.

Such analysis, however, relies upon flawed historical and conceptual assumptions, in part because it refuses to recognize a distinction between the private and public realms. There indeed is evidence suggesting that public, particularly political, matters are less important to contemporary youth. But this hardly proves young people are more self-indulgent or socially alienated than previous generations. Misanthropes, whether they live at Walden or Waco, may always be with us, but Aristotle's observation about man being a social creature appears secure yet.

There are a number of factors geopolitical, economic, technological are responsible for the withering away of public, and especially youth, interest in politics. Relative global stability matched by generally robust economic growth have, for the first time in a half-century, relieved the rising generation of concerns about war or financial hardship. Moreover, in our age of "reinvented" liberalism and "compassionate" conservatism, elections do not seem to be fought over great issues. They lack the immediacy that earned, say, the Vietnam draft the attention of youth.

When freshmen last fall were asked in the UCLA survey to rate the importance of different objectives, only 17 percent expressed the belief that it is essential or very important to "influence the political structure."

Polled about "keeping up to date with political affairs," a description that implies an educated citizen rather than a political activist, only 27 percent indicated strong interest. An only slightly higher percentage of students rated "becoming a community leader" as essential or very important.

These numbers provide all the pretext that educational Chicken Littles (a delicious phrase that invites charges of both "speciesism" and "heightism") require to declare a civic crisis.

When Insight magazine tracked down Alexander W. Astin, a professor at UCLA's graduate school of education and information studies, he exclaimed: "This continuing erosion of students' political interest and engagement should be a red flag to all of us who believe in the democratic process."

In truth, though, the alarm expressed by Astin and others probably results more from frustration that most young people are not waving red flags.

The derision directed by liberals at today's youth stems in part from an exaggerated sense of their own generation's social activism. In many respects, 1990s freshmen do not differ drastically in attitudes from their predecessors. In 1975, 30 percent of those surveyed described participation in a community action program as important; by 1997, the number had declined to 23 percent. Perhaps this is a disturbing trend, but if it proves apathy then the battle was lost long ago.

A full one-third of freshmen did agree "strongly or somewhat strongly" that, "Realistically, an individual can do little to bring about changes in our society." Does this bespeak despair about civic affairs? Not necessarily. It is not altogether a bad thing for contemporary youth to be without pretensions to transform the world. There may be fewer Bill Clintons and Hillary Rodhams incubating among us.

The 1997 survey indicated that students' lack of interest in political affairs was consistent across levels of governance. Just 14 percent reported discussing politics during the past year, fewer than 10 percent worked in a political campaign on some level, and only 21 percent had voted in a student election.

Despite the compelling evidence offered by public choice economics that election participation is related to self-interest (hence the influence of special interests in a governmental system that distributes perks), indifference to political affairs rarely is exalted as an ideal to which free citizens ought to aspire. Instead, we are berated by people most often those connected in some way with government who deliver solemn, patronizing lectures on civic responsibility.

There is no greater imperative for contemporary intellectuals than to assert the importance of the private realm and to attempt a recovery of it. Part of that project requires not only a contraction of government size and power, but also a corresponding reduction in the significance granted to the political realm in our own lives and thought.

It is in this respect that America's youth are a beacon. While they may not be haunted by nightmares about dolphins drowning in tuna nets, a whopping 75 percent of freshmen report a desire to be "very well off financially."

The fact that large numbers of young people continue to aspire to wealth is a reminder that ours is a society in which economic achievement seems possible (and more attainable perhaps than political change). This is a sign of health, and should be contrasted with the economic anemia of places such as France, where a majority of high school seniors tell pollsters that they would like nothing more than to work as government employees.

The economic vibrancy of the United States is matched by technological innovations that have accelerated the pace of the evolution that naturally occurs among social institutions and arrangements. Unable to look beyond existing but outmoded institutions, some cultural observers can see only apathy, when, in fact, new expressions of the communal instinct are emerging. Evidence of this evolution, as well as the old guard's backlash against it, is particularly evident at universities, where the Internet and email, cell phones and beepers, and ready access to transportation are diminishing the social monopoly once enjoyed by schools.

And the consequence is that existing institutions are being displaced. Small, insular, residential liberal arts schools, which are collegiate in the truest sense, are in no danger of being put out of business, but they are being pressed by technological and social innovation. The days of students being deposited at college by parents who pledge to pick them up at Thanksgiving are over. Increased affluence compounded by technological development liberate students from the necessity of college being the central social outlet in their lives.

This trend may have unfortunate implications for the liberal arts enterprise, but just imagine the terror it creates among the staff and students charged with campus "programming" and student life. Typically at their own behest, these pests take the liberty of scheduling events, elections, or concerts, and then profess to be "deeply disappointed" when no one shows up. They conclude that apathy, cynicism, possibly even despair are sweeping through campus. It never occurs to them that social planners, such as themselves, never have been hip; the difference now is that the average student no longer must tolerate collegiate versions of Club Med.

There is no more telling evidence of the decline of schools' social importance than the demise of college yearbooks. These institutional scrapbooks arose during a time when school offered something more than simply an education. There were no school-based health clinics then, but vintage yearbooks recorded the dances and pep rallies, assemblies, and movies, that formed the social core of student life. The pages portray the habits and beliefs of a generation.

Yet the manner of living that gave yearbooks their purpose is passing. In recent years, the Chronicle of Higher Education regularly has run obituaries for college yearbooks, many a century or older, that no longer can find an audience. In its last year of production at the University of Vermont, for example, only 250 copies of the yearbook were sold on a campus of 10,000 students. Some high schools and colleges have experimented with other formats, such as video or CD-ROM, but yearbooks face more than financial hurdles. Even at schools not dominated by part-time, commuter, or non-traditional students, yearbooks have become relics of a bygone era.

What is occurring is a movement towards social activities that are privately initiated. Commensurate with the retreat from interest in politics, youth are expressing a preference for decentralized social activities. In-stead of the student center, they hang out in malls, homes, and coffee shops.

Schools are not the only institutions that must evolve to keep up with the preferences of the public they presume to serve. Political parties are challenged by the fact that fewer people wish to register for specific parties, civic groups are struggling to sustain membership, and even the Masons have taken to sporting recruitment stickers on their bumpers.

Philanthropic causes are devoting attention to appealing to newly wealthy thirty-somethings. The necessity of social evolution is understood well by companies that market to the young, who can be fickle and quick to adopt or abandon trends. Today's youth are no more monolithic in their attitudes than was the earlier generation from which both YAF and SDS emerged. But they are more market savvy, and disdainful of sappy or shameless attempts to court their favor. Some even are exploring the perennial questions, though their baseball caps may conceal it.

Indeed if "apathy" is about schools and universities enjoying less social importance, government "service" going unvenerated, and social agitation being unappealing, then it should be welcomed. For once, youth may be correct in thinking that they have a superior vision to impart to society and there is nothing apathetic about that.

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Morgan N. Knull is a graduate student in political theory at Louisiana State University.


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