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Summer 01
Student Experience
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Role Models for Engagement
By Paul Rogat Loeb, author of Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time (www.soulofacitizen.org)


From the July/August issue of Academe, published by the American Association of University Professors. A longer version of this piece can be found at www.soulofacitizen.org/Articles.htm.

We hear a lot about the retreat of students from public life. The annual surveys suggest they care less each year about the environment, racial understanding, community-action programs, or even discussing political issues. Their generation has been repeatedly accused of apathy--simply not caring. Yet as I travel to speak, visit classes, and lead workshops at campuses throughout the country, I see less indifference and more learned helplessness--the feeling that they can't change the world, so why try?

Wherever I go, small groups of students do tackle the critical issues of our times: environmental threats, illiteracy, growing gaps between the rich and the poor. But most feel too overwhelmed. They'll do important work volunteering one on one, because that's tangible and concrete. But when asked to imagine themselves taking on the deeper roots of issues they care about, they come up blank. Our culture hasn't given them the models to take action.

To foster their engagement, we need to give them models and help them overcome what psychologist Robert Jay Lifton calls the "broken connection" between their values and actions, between the world they inherit and the one they'll pass on. To do that, we need to understand the barriers they face, like our society's pervasive cynicism and growing economic pressures.

Many also feel a lack of confidence based on a "perfect standard" for themselves and others. They decide that, before they take a public stand on an issue, they need to know every fact, figure, and statistic. They also feel they need perfect confidence about their passion for the issue, their motives for taking it on, and the certainty that it's the most urgent cause imaginable.

Role Models

To overcome these barriers, students need examples of people, present or past, who take action despite their doubts and uncertainties, and keep on despite apparent failures. Yet most know little about the movements that have most changed America.

Take Rosa Parks, one of the few activists whose name students know. Most believe, in concert with our prevailing myths, that Parks came out of nowhere to change history instantly when she refused to move to the back of a Montgomery, Alabama, bus. Yet before refusing to give up her bus seat, Parks had spent twelve years helping lead the local NAACP chapter. The summer before, she'd attended a ten-day training session at Tennessee's labor and civil rights organizing school, the Highlander Center, where she'd met an older generation of civil rights activists and discussed the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision banning "separate but equal" schools.

In other words, Parks didn't come out of nowhere. She didn't single-handedly give birth to the civil rights movement. She didn't act alone, or on a whim. Instead, she was part of an existing effort for change at a time when success was far from certain.

That in no way diminishes the power and historical importance of her refusal to give up her seat. But it reminds us that this tremendously consequential act might never have taken place without the humble and frustrating work that she and others did earlier on. It reminds us that her initial step of getting involved was just as courageous and critical as the fabled moment when she refused to move to the back of the bus. It refutes the myth that anyone who takes a committed public stand--or at least an effective one--must be a larger-than-life figure, someone with more time, energy, courage, vision, eloquence, and knowledge than any normal person--and certainly more than an eighteen- or twenty-year-old student--could ever possess.

Only a handful of students know this history. Most know even less about the efforts of the Populists, the abolitionists, the women's suffrage movement, and the union movements. As a result, they have little sense of what it takes to act and persist for a difficult cause. As a student from West Virginia told me recently, "They teach the conclusions: 'Lincoln freed the slaves. Women got the vote. Some unions were organized.' We never learn how change actually occurred."

Students have also been taught little about more recent examples of courage and commitment. I can go to any campus in the country, ask about the American student antiapartheid movement, and get nothing but blank looks. This movement of the mid-1980s and early 1990s touched colleges across America. It played a key role in finally passing sanctions on South Africa and helping pave the way for democracy. But most young women and men can't take sustenance from this history, because they don't know about it.

Nor have most students learned in any substantive way about the powerful current efforts of their peers--sweatshop boycotts, environmental initiatives, union organizing campaigns, challenges to the death penalty, or local community projects. From watching the sensationalizing TV news reports of the World Trade Organization protests of 1999, they'd never know that thousands of young nonviolent activists helped foster a global dialogue on critical trade issues.

The Small Picture

The exceptions, of course, are the growing community-service efforts, perhaps because participants don't have to deal with frustrating and painful questions of how to shift an entire society. Today's students volunteer in large numbers at food banks, homeless shelters, literacy campaigns, Big Brothers and Sisters programs, senior centers, and an array of other worthy projects. Historically, volunteerism has ebbed and flowed in tandem with broader social advocacy. Now, however, they've separated. The one-on-one efforts definitely matter, but in a more limited context. And even those students most involved often feel they can do little to shape the larger public choices that so affect the communities they serve.

When a SUNY Buffalo environmental studies professor asked his students how to respond to George Bush's environmental depredations, they suggested driving their cars less and recycling more--but not taking any larger actions to challenge the policies they opposed. It's far easier for students to decide that the way to change the world is to get everyone to become a vegan than to tackle powerful economic interests, even around related issues like the sustainability of our food production.

A decade ago, many of us thought that simply getting students out into the community would lead to further engagement. It does teach them valuable lessons about compassion and connection, and we'd do well to build on the burgeoning K-12 volunteer initiatives that involve students in a broader world, and bring these efforts to our campuses with a greater inclination at least to get out and help. But mere volunteerism doesn't automatically lead to speaking out on public choices, no matter how related the activity is to students' areas of concern. We need to help them take the lessons of their service a step further, to become advocates and witnesses.

Ordinary People Turned Extraordinary

We can provide the models and perspectives lacking in our culture. We need to bring such models of engagement into our curriculums, drawing on the growing service-learning efforts promoted by organizations like Campus Compact. Otherwise, even if we address the problems of our time, we may largely foster despair. Our students aren't all going to agree on the same principles or political positions. But the more we create a space for them to reflect on broader community involvement, and the more we give them a sense of how their actions can matter, the more they will respond. No student should graduate from our campuses without a sense of how to address the core issues of our time.

Whatever our academic role, we can work to give students the strength and courage to think through what they care about most--and act on it. The more we ourselves are involved, the more we can inspire them. When our students see us testifying at campus or community hearings, working in a soup kitchen, writing letters to the editor of our local papers, or taking a stand on issues we believe in, this helps them surmount their fears of speaking out. They see people they know and respect trying to act for the greater common good, and this inspires them. It gives them a sense that these questions can be part of their lives as well.

Two thousand years ago, Rabbi Hillel asked, "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?" Our students understand the first question all too well. But no one has taught them the answer to the second one--that they cannot fulfill their humanity in isolation from the world. Many would like to be involved, but talk of infinitely deferring their involvement to some time when they will have more status, power, and standing. So do we, for that matter. We need to teach them the meaning of "If not now, when?" because justice deferred is justice denied, and involvement endlessly deferred is passivity. But if we give them models enough, they just might join that stream of ordinary people turned extraordinary who've helped shape a better world for us all.


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