5 Questions for . . .
Meredith Derecho, class of 2018, East Asian Studies, Yale University
Lauren Britt-Elmore, recent graduate, Harvard Graduate School of Education
Javier Espinoza, class of 2017, Luskin School of Public Affairs, UCLA
Kirsten Hoyte, Department of English, Concord Academy
Michael Jeffries, Associate Professor of American Studies, Wellelsley College
Michael Salamone, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Washington State University
Jonathan Sawday, Walter J. Ong, S.J., Professor in the Humanities, Saint Louis University
Olga Shurchkov, Associate Professor of Economics, Wellesley College
5. How does the social/political outlook and activity of today's students compare to that of students in the sixties and seventies? (This can be answered on the basis of personal experience, secondhand knowledge, or historical knowledge. You may also substitute for the 60s/70s any other reasonably well defined sociopolitical movement that involved young people, whether it be more contemporary – i.e. the “Occupy” Movement – or from a period further past than the 60s.)
I'm pretty sure that students in the sixties and seventies didn't have Facebook and Buzzfeed, so I think the cyberspace and superspeed media proliferation shape student activities today in a way that wasn't possible in the sixties and seventies.
To put it bluntly, I guess I believe that the issues that students are fighting today aren't as pressing or as big as they were forty years ago. But I don't have much of an understanding of what the issues were back then, so it's just a feeling.
Olga Shurchkov and Michael Jeffries
I think that Wellesley is a very diverse place, so the answer to this question really depends on whom you ask. For example, many students I teach are so overwhelmed with work and other priorities that they don't even follow the "real world" news. We give them the tools for critical analysis and encourage them to engage with the world, but many are just too swamped. On the other hand, I know that others on campus are very engaged, but as faculty we don't see that aspect of them as much. Both of these observations were probably true about students in the past though. So, overall, my sense is that students are every bit as engaged as their predecessors were in the 60s/70s, but their energy is dispersed across a far wider range of issues. The activity is no lower than it was generations ago, but the nature of political activism is more complex. For example, for better or for worse, activism takes place on social media as much as it does in the streets. I can't really gauge the students' outlook, though the recent events and the ugliness of the presidential race certainly couldn't have made them more hopeful. But it doesn't really matter whether they're optimists or pessimists, so long as they are courageous and committed to dignity and human rights for all.
I actually don’t feel informed enough to answer this. Because this is the first time I’m seeing a real movement afoot in my lifetime. I will say, I can see the connection between the Occupy Movement and #BlackLivesMatter. Between the immigration reform fight and the fight against rape culture. Between #notmyfeminism and the push to make the gay rights movement more inclusive. Perhaps that’s the difference…the idea of intersectionality. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not the responsibility of #BlackLivesMatter to fight for fair treatment of all races by police. But there seems to be a sharing of strategy, an openness to critique and dialogue that pushes these movements to think deeper and be better. I won’t comment on the role of social media making these current fights unlike those that have come before. In some ways, I agree, but in most ways I don’t. Social media is a tool, just like a megaphone or a soapbox or a music festival.
My generation (I was born in the UK in the 1950s) was one of the most fortunate to have ever existed: a functioning free health service, the dwindling spectre of unemployment in the booming 60s; education that was essentially free. But, in the 70s, when we “came of age” the landscape was turning into something much bleaker, and it hasn’t improved much since – indeed it may have got much worse. In London, in the late 70s, with the advent of Thatcherism and the resurgence of the far right, protest – violent protest being very much the norm – was still organized around a fundamentally political and class-orientated axis. Race, I’m very sorry to admit, hardly figured... though the Brixton riots helped to shift that. I’m tempted to say that today’s students are more wired to identity politics than we were, but I also feel that they’re a good deal savvier than we were in connecting the abstract to the individual’s life, even if that means ditching all manner of ideological sacred cows. And of course they’re wired in another sense that we could never have known... the function (and effect) of new, everyday, communicative technologies is simply astonishing to one who (like me) relied on the land-line, the call- box (pay phone), the mail service, and the mimeographed flyer. I think we’re still learning how to swim in these new waters and the present (young) generation are turning out to be our instructors.
The US was founded on myths. Manifest Destiny being exhibit A. In the sixties black students disproved the U.S.’ deeply held belief and myth of “negroes being happy in their place.” Oppressed peoples have never been happy in their place. Along came black heroes like Malcolm X, Nina Simone & James Baldwin, who for the first time validated the black American experience, giving birth to “The New Negro.” Students were given the space to stand up, call out injustice, and for the first time not flinch in doing so—bringing this country to a place where it could no longer contain a revolt like it could before.
We are seeing similarities now in the sense that the US can no longer contain a revolt like it could do before. After the Civil Rights Movement was successfully subdued and co-opted by white liberals, Gil Scott Heron proclaimed the revolution would not be televised. Today the revolution will still not be televised—but it will be instagramed, and live streamed on social media via black twitter. This transparency caused by the democratization of technology disables the U.S. from pretending its house is clean, and ultimately bringing the resurgence of “The New Negro.”
Well, I was a child in the seventies so I am not sure. I think that today's students are for the most part thoughtful and optimistic. I think they are committed to positive social change. I also think that I teach a very privileged population that is not always aware of just how lucky they are or respectful of the progress that preceding generations have created. So sometimes I think that they are dismissive of how far we have come as a society and impatient for further change. On the other hand, maybe that is part of their job at 16, 17 and 18 – to be strong, intense, impatient and dismissive of adults. Maybe they are doing exactly what they should be.
On a slightly side note, your questions have made me think a little bit about the whole counterculture revolution of sixties and seventies. Yes, there was the intense political activism of those years, but there was also the part of the movement that advocated "Turn on, tune in, drop out." I see a parallel social and political activism amongst today's students. Do I see a parallel push to drop out of mainstream culture? I don't know. I'll have to think about it. I do think the use of technology, social media and gaming encourages a strange isolated connectivity among some people that might have some similarities to the idea of turning on, tuning in, and dropping out. Somehow social media allows us to be both together and alone simultaneously as well as both connected to the real world and removed from it. I want to think some more about this!
Although I have seen a lot of student activism inspired by the ‘60s and ‘70s (especially when I was at Berkeley for graduate school), I don’t get the sense student activism today has quite the same spirit (as far as I understand it – I was born well after the era of Mario Savio). But I think that technology and social media have changed the appearance, and strategy of student movements. It is hard for me to say if this is effective at making change – or if this is simply “slacktivism” – but I would not be surprised at all if such online involvement has made students more informed of the world around them.