Student Activism in an Age of Passivism

I was walking across the campus green the other day and overheard some students talking about war–whether generally or specifically, I am not sure. I distinctly heard one of them claim to be a “passivist,” Clearly, this young person meant “pacifist,” a close homonym, and one of her cohort quickly corrected her. Later, I posted this anecdote on Facebook, eliciting many yuks, groans, and clever follow-up comments from my clever and educated friends, including a couple to the effect of “it was probably the truth.” Sure, it was a wickedly ironic verbal slip up; However, the more I thought about this incident, the more it also seemed to make a profound statement about the world today that deserves more than an offhand quip.

For better or for worse, the college campus has often been the lifeblood of political activism, and I’m not just talking about the 1960s here. Think of the Chinese students who demonstrated at Tiananmen Square in 1989, the students behind the 1832 June Rebellion that is at the center of Les Misérables, and the recent Arab Spring in which the fervor for revolution was spread largely by social media–largely by the young people who are most comfortable with that technology. In 1815, in Germany, liberal student groups gathered at Warberg Castle and burned reactionary books.  In Indonesia  in the 1920s, it was students who led the movement against colonialism. Students in Iran in the 1970s protested the Shah as well as the theocratic republic that followed. Even when I was a college student in the early 1990s, there were campus protests against the first Gulf War.

After Syria used chemical weapons against its own people, I asked a group of college freshmen what they thought about it, and they had no idea what I was talking about. I told them that the U.S. was considering military action; this was serious. Their response was little more than a shrug. Passivism.

Traditionally, it seems, the passion of youth stirs people to do extraordinary things from which the wisdom of age pretends to protect us. Though sometimes misguided, this is an important source of cultural energy and power. What’s happened to that, and what happens to a culture filled with apathetic nihilists? American college students today have grown up in a complicated world where there are so many flavors of injustice available to protest that one of two things happen: (1) they are overwhelmed and refuse to get invested in any particular cause or (2) they give lip service to virtually every cause that crosses their path but don’t really get involved in any meaningful way.

I think one of my roles as an instructor is to fan the flames and let youthful passion do its work, but when there’s no flame there to begin with, what does one do?

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