For the last four years, I’ve assigned an essay on the cultural importance of college to a writing course I teach at La Salle University. It was published in the New York Times, which asked college students to respond as part of an essay contest.
That essay, “What’s the Matter with College?” is a provocative indictment of Gen Y overachievers that, according to the essay’s author, Rick Perlstein, have been so caught up in marketing themselves that they’ve eliminated the college campus as central to youth culture.
“Where are the student movements?” Perlstein asks.
For my La Salle students, much of what Perlstein said about college students today rang somewhat true, though they, unlike Perlstein, don’t suffer the oversimplified nostalgia for the ’60s. Young people today, they said, organize online and do so for causes great and small – from cancer funding to stopping war in Sudan.
More important, though, when it comes to actively going counter culture, the student today faces a much larger debt burden after he or she graduates and a historically tough jobs market. Students today don’t have the leisure, my students mostly agree, to spend time in sit ins and discover themselves. They can’t afford it.
Now, however, as I get ready to assign the piece again, the landscape has changed quite a bit. For the last two weeks, members of many generations, Y, X and Boomers, have assembled in city capitals in “Occupy” movements. And if nostalgia for the ’60s wasn’t rekindled by all the gatherings, perhaps the tale of Pete Seeger marching down Broadway and leading legions of people in a few protest songs will make the connection for you.
Finally, it seems, Perlstein and other members of the thinking class that like to wax elegiac about the ’60s, have gotten what they asked for. Young people, tired and frustrated by the lack of opportunities available to them, have taken to the streets.
And so close are these protests to those of old, that police are responding, predictably, by arresting scores of protestors (though it’s worth noting, protests in Philadelphia have been very peaceful, with a lot of credit going to the Philadelphia Police).
Inspired by the Arab Spring protests of earlier this year, protestors, mostly young, but many older, have found something worth protesting. Perhaps it was tough to justify missing class for a march down Broadway, but when the average college student is looking a graduating with tens of thousands of dollars in student loans and dim job prospects, the algebra involved in hitting the streets makes a lot more sense.
Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Philadelphia and all the other occupations that have followed are the most coherent and effective I’ve seen in at least 10 years. Young people, who have protested everything from the International Monetary Fund to the Iraq War, have found something to stand for that they can feel and see directly. What makes this different, I think, is that protestors in the street right now really believe in what it is they’re doing.
Perhaps young America was asleep for the last 20 years or more. But they’re not anymore.