'The Question of Whether Your Actions Will Matter Is a Harder One to Get Past'

The Chronicle of Higher Education
March 13, 2011
'The Question of Whether Your Actions Will Matter Is a Harder One to Get Past'
'The Question of Whether Your Actions Will Matter Is a Harder One to Get Past' 1
Erin Keefe, U. of Wisconsin-Madison Badger Herald
Paul Rogat Loeb
By Lauren Sieben
Paul Rogat Loeb has seen a big shift in students' attitudes toward political activism since he protested the Vietnam War at Stanford University in the early 1970s. His most recent book, Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in Challenging Times, is well read among student activists and is now in its second edition, with more than 100,000 copies in print, many in college classrooms. He has spoken to students about civic and political activism at more than 400 campuses since the early 1980s. Although many students are engaged with their communities, he says, the majority are not politically active.
Q. Just how do students participate in politics today?
A. Back in 2008, there was a lot of activity during the Obama campaign. Now students are involved in the community in more bounded ways. They will volunteer at a soup kitchen, but they won't advocate around hunger issues.
Q. How do you get these students more interested in activism?
A. I tell them stories about the people who have acted, past and present, because I find that those stories really empower and inspire them. Students feel like they need to know every single fact and statistic and have the answer to every possible question before they start, and of course that's not the way things occur.
Q. Are students more active in Wisconsin right now, where proposed legislation threatens bargaining rights for university workers and graduate students?
A. I'm heartened by student involvement in the Wisconsin protests and by students' challenging crippling tuition hikes in other states, like California. But the challenge is to get students involved so they're engaged before a crisis hits, and so their actions can help our country pursue wiser and more humane paths than those that have landed us in the situations we now face.
Q. What are the biggest differences between this generation of college students and your generation of college students?
A. I grew up right around the peak of the engagement, in the 60s. The biggest difference is that many of us at that point really believed that change could occur, and we were taught this sort of American dream: to act as a citizen and then the government will listen. Now the burden of cynicism is infinitely greater. The question of whether your actions will matter is a harder one to get past.
Q. Where does the cynicism come from?
A. You get a series of disappointments, and I think that it feeds the cynicism. Certainly from the students I've talked with, that's been the process. So many students who were knocking on doors in 2008 certainly weren't doing it in November of 2010.
Q. Has the revolution in Egypt had any effects on student activism here?
A. If they understand it correctly, then what they'll recognize is that this is yet another example of how human courage can prevail against absolutely impossible odds. Activism has to be conscious, and that's what they did in Egypt. They had trial marches and they brainstormed, in the same way the students in the civil-rights movement brainstormed before they went to sit down at the lunch counter.

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