I began to wonder about this a few weeks ago during an afternoon walk at the campus of UC Berkeley in California, once a fulcrum for social and political protest. There were no banners or placards; no hint of sixties-style activism that helped bring the Vietnam War to an end. And at the other end of the country my daughter and I found things were much the same at Wheaton College, considerably removed geographically and socially from Berkeley, yet similarly silent about a war that presumably weighs heavily on the minds of many students.
Nationally, the silence is deafening. “Wanted: JMU antiwar activists” reads a headline in the campus newspaper at James Madison University in Virginia. In the piece, a sophomore vents frustration after finding few friends who would join her at the Sept. 15 anti-war rally in Washington, D.C. She concludes that many students “hid behind feeble excuses” to skip the demonstration. In New York, The Columbia Spectator reported the rally managed to attract only “a contingent of several dozen Columbia students.”
“Sparse protest marks Iraq milestone,” noted a headline in the University of Maryland’s paper when a campus demonstration drew an estimated 200 students. “Where have all the anti-war protests gone?” asked a headline in The Stanford Daily following a nighttime vigil attended by “mostly graduate students and community members.” The piece reported a “startlingly subdued level of anti-war activism” on the Palo Alto, California campus.
The most obvious distinction between campus protesters of the sixties and students today is the absence of a Draft. During Vietnam most students had friends who were called to serve, and many feared that they would be next. Today’s students are not only spared such worries, their very presence in college confirms in most cases that they are not part of the socio-economic class that now does America’s fighting. Yet, to believe that such a narrow rationale is all that separates these generations of students seems unfair to both.
In the Vietnam era, the mindset on campus was largely fixed on fear and loathing of The Establishment. The killings by National Guard troops at Kent State was vivid confirmation for an entire generation that student views were quite literally under attack. Contrast that with the dominant fear on campuses today that the enemy is likely to lurk within, creating tragedies such as those at Columbine and Virginia Tech.
As bleak as the Vietnam situation appeared four decades ago, students may find the current conditions even more desperate. They see a government that is unable to forge a consensus; worse, an electoral process that appears to have failed as an instrument of change. Yet, in the sixties and early seventies, “Power to the People” was a legitimate, if sometimes frightening, concept. Civil rights marches actually forced new laws; the news media actually brought down a president, and demonstrations actually contributed to ending a war.
Some of today’s student leaders argue that technology is prompting a shift in the patterns of protest. In an editorial titled “The New Age of Activism,” student editors at The Cornell Daily Sun recently defended themselves against media that “portray us as so lazy, self-interested and apathetic.”
“Youth activism is far from dead,” the editorial maintained. “Instead, it has transformed from sensationalized 1960s tear-gas rallies to online petitions and Internet discussion boards. Although this new wave of activism may be construed as passive, it is often highly effective in mobilizing individuals across geographic and cultural lines.”
But that New Age argument seems to beg an age-old question: If an Internet message falls in the forest does it make any sound? Many student protesters who faced tear gas in the sixties were legitimate heroes of their time, and to suggest that such valor can come via the Internet may be a dubious proposition at best.
Perhaps it is unrealistic to expect a student population to be much more than a reflection of its time, its society, and its elders. The silence on campus during this critical period may well reflect yet another failure by educators, politicians and parents to teach the compelling lessons of our past.
© Peter Funt.