Apathy shouldn’t worry college students

Apathy among college freshmen hit an all-time high in 1997, according to a survey released this week. The University of California-Los Angeles study, conducted annually since 1966, found that only 27 percent of freshmen nationwide keep up with politics. A mere 14 percent regularly discuss politics, while 53 percent don’t identify with particular political views.
At the risk of sounding too smug, we really don’t care. Major news organizations and national commentators will surely bemoan the declining civic involvement of today’s youth and the consequent imminence of civilization’s collapse. Professors, together at departmental lounges or weekend dinner parties, will chortle over their pupils’ disengagement from the real world and the values of liberal education.
After all, universities — like the country in general — are now being run by people who came of age in the 1960s. It was the very first UCLA survey in 1966 that set the record for student interest in politics at 58 percent. A record high 30 percent of students discussed politics in 1968. Comparing today with the ’60s to demonstrate a decline in civic involvement is unfair. Thirty years ago, the nation was at war. College freshmen, while mostly insulated from the draft by deferment, saw their friends shipped overseas to fight an increasingly unpopular Asian conflict.
It wasn’t just Vietnam. The Cold War was only half over. H-bombs were still being tested in the Pacific. There were urban riots, civil rights battles and missile gaps to close. Moreover, there were more people of college-going age 30 years ago. Not only did politics matter more in the daily lives of students, the opinions of college voters mattered more to lawmakers. When ’60s students set the record for youth civic involvement, politics was a question of whether they’d be shipped off to kill or die in a rice paddy.
Now, politics is a question of whether the federal budget should be balanced in 1999 or 2002. Government simply matters less to ordinary citizens today than at any time since the Coolidge administration. In large part because of the political revolutions ignited on ’60s campuses, today’s students need not define themselves in political terms. And anyway, is there any doubt that today’s students would react just as vociferously to a renewed draft, a pointless war or the return of Jim Crow?
What the social critics of doom will miss in their denunciations of the Atari generation is the academic good news. A record high of 39 percent of freshmen plan to obtain a master’s degree, and 15 percent hope to receive a doctorate. College students aren’t tuned out; they’ve changed channels from political protest to academic achievement. Civic involvement certainly matters, and whether students talk politics has some effect on the quality of our civilization. But 18-year-olds don’t come to universities to talk politics. They enroll in college to study.
So today’s freshmen can reply with pride to their inevitable critics that they, more than their parents, professors and political representatives, came to school to get a good education. Apathy is too strong a word for contemporary students. They care, but only about the right things.