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CAMPUS CORRESPONDENCE : Job, Car and Classes Leave Little Energy for Activism

December 23, 1990|Gary Lasky and Jennifer Swift | Gary Lasky is a graduate student in social ecology at UC Irvine. Jennifer Swift is a senior majoring in film studies and director of Generic Alternative, a monthly campus newspaper

IRVINE — With a revived anti-war movement picking up support across the national political spectrum, local observers are puzzled at the almost complete state of quiet on campuses in Southern California.

Just raising the question, "What's wrong with college students today?" does not address the dynamics that shape the political lives of today's university students and the role of the university in our society. An understanding of the economic difficulties faced by today's students does offer insight into this campus apathy. For one thing, campus culture is focused on the classroom because a degree is seen as the vehicle to obtaining a job. To meet this challenge, campus activists must work through the classroom to generate a student body committed to social change.

The economics of today's college student experience may shock those who recall the low-budget student lifestyle; these days, just about everyone has at least one outside job. With its $1,900 in annual fees for state residents, the University of California is undeniably a good bargain. Yet the cost of living in the four southern coastal campuses can be astronomical.

Three years ago, UC Irvine was ranked the 10th most expensive in-state school in the United States (including on-campus living costs). Worse, the pricey local rental market precludes students from obtaining a housing bargain off-campus. With auto insurance running $2,000 a year and up, it is not unusual for full-time students at UC Irvine to work 30 hours a week and live with their families, often an hour's drive away. God forbid anyone should try to live in Southern California without wheels.

In these recessionary times, even students from apparently well-off families must take jobs. The president of an elite campus sorority reports that two-thirds of her members have a job and one-half need to work to meet basic expenses, such as rent. Our local University of California student body has, with its priorities on employment, income and cars, come to resemble that of a community college.

The removal from activism of middle-class students, traditionally the backbone of the 1960s and '70s student protests, mandates the inclusion of other constituencies. With a broad multiethnic student body--the first-year class is 45% Asian-American and more than 40% foreign-born--UC Irvine offers the potential for wide-ranging coalitions. But first, innovations in theory must be developed. For instance, anti-war protesters ought to be making appeals to conservative students who might agree with columnist Patrick Buchanan in opposing a Mideast war. Sustained organizing cannot take place until protesters are willing to identify a common basis of concern.

The best example at UCI of how a student action could generate a broad-based coalition was the spontaneous concern for Chinese students and protesters following the 1989 Tian An Men Square massacre in Beijing. More than 800 people thronged the campus commons mall to hear speeches and donate relief money. But this exercise was short-lived; while the Bush Administration assured China that relations would be normalized, our students retreated into their final exams, unappreciative of the impact of world affairs and the global economy on their current lives and future livelihoods.

This generation of students cannot afford to to think of global developments from the Persian Gulf to China as the responsibility of foreign affairs experts and dedicated peace activists. So how can these career-focused students be roused if they no longer think of college as a broad learning experience, extending far outside the classroom? For these students, in the words of UC Santa Barbara sociology professor Richard Flacks, "the capacity to make history--to influence the conditions and terms of everyday life in a collectivity" is not part of their identity. The logical approach to once again defining a college education as a liberal-arts growth experience is to orient the students to global and social responsibility issues through their course work.

The introduction of materials with a point of view on contemporary events into classrooms is perfectly compatible with the university's teaching and research traditions. As a first step in this direction, the campus Arab student association arranged with two professors to make viewing the film documentary "Israel and Occupied Territory" part of regular classwork. The film was screened during class hours and the assignment included an essay. Life was, for a change, mixed with curriculum.

This model for building student participation could extend to daytime speeches and panels. Informal political discussion might even become part of the campus culture and eventually be integrated into daily life.

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