As I ventured through the maze of music, drag queens, and flying candy that is the freshman activities fair, the vast expanse of Harvard extracurricular life was laid out before me. Publications were being shoved in my face, upperclassmen were begging me for my e-mail address, and each group wanted to tell me why their club was what would define my next four years. Of all of the myriad options there was one area I avoided like the plague—the corner of Harvard Yard with the Institute of Politics, Dems, Republicans, and any other group committed to political engagement. At the risk of sounding cynical, I didn’t see the point of entering into political debate. It seemed that no one ever changed their minds, and until people were truly willing to actively entertain an alternative viewpoint, what would be the point of arguing with them?
Instead I walked over to the table for The Crimson and began a four-year journey in photojournalism. Photography is the ultimate metaphor for how I felt about the whole political arena. It was easy and enjoyable to capture and observe politics, but by placing a lens between myself and the debate I could avoid becoming involved.
Looking back on my time here, I find it hard not to ask why so many bright, passionate, and interested students are so disinterested and distanced from civic life, particularly compared to previous generations. We may spend hours reading blogs and The New York Times to procrastinate. We may even have an occasional dining hall conversation about current events. But how many of us have ever participated in a protest or even know the names of our elected officials?
More and more it seems that the problem our generation will face is not merely apathy but total disengagement from civic life. Many philosophers and social critics have tried to isolate this problem. It’s not a new one. Marx called it alienation, Durkhiem said it was Anomie, and de Tocqueville called it individualism. Whatever you call it, this old problem seems to be a greater challenge now more than ever.
One of the main reasons that we lack the passion of previous generations is the absence of any form of sacrifice; we have not been asked to make one, and if asked, it is uncertain whether a critical mass would be willing to do so. America may strive towards progress, wealth, and prosperity, but we have forgotten what it means to be forced to give up some of that for a greater good.
Previous generations became invested and engaged in American civic discourse precisely because of the sacrifices they were asked to make. Our grandparents endured the Great Depression and World War II. They were asked to ration, to cut back on luxury and spending for a greater purpose. They also were the generation that implemented Social Security, the ultimate example of making a current sacrifice for a future benefit.
Our parent’s generation had the Vietnam War. They were not as uniformly committed to the cause in the way their parents were to World War II. However, the threat of a draft pulled them into civic discourse. Many ran for office, protested, and became radicals. They managed to get a constitutional amendment passed that lowered the voting age to 18, elected a new crop of congressmen, and eventually ended the war. Both those who supported and opposed the war saw an opportunity to allow their voices to be heard and wanted to participate in American democracy. The sacrifice of the draft forced involvement.
Our generation has had plenty of opportunity to sacrifice. Sept. 11 should have been the impetus for change, but very little has occurred. There were few calls to conserve gas or find alternative sources of energy. Some people entered the military, but the masses simply kept going about their daily lives, going to the mall without a second thought about participation. The much-hyped youth vote never materialized in 2004. The war in Iraq provided another opportunity. But there was no draft, nor hundreds of Harvard students trying to enlist. We did not protest in large numbers. Rather there was a collective shrug.
I am not arguing for a draft or gas rations, but rather that the lack of these policies belies a larger problem. We think we can do whatever we want. We can have a war and economic prosperity. We can pursue terrorists while driving large gas guzzling cars. Our generation has never been asked to make a tough choice, a sacrifice, or a compromise.
We are not totally to blame. Most of our national leaders, so afraid of losing votes, refuse to ask their constituents to face tough decisions. As a result our stake in America’s future becomes more and more abstract. Its not that we don’t care. We just don’t know what to care about or what our caring will accomplish.
As some of our country’s brightest students and future leaders, it is time to change that. We must not wait to be asked to participate, but to seize the opportunity. The country is waiting for something, and our generation must help by getting involved. It doesn’t matter what our political views may be. Too small a percentage of us care what people’s political views are at all.
Over the past four years my experiences here, and events on the world stage, have gradually made me realize that I cannot sit on the sidelines taking pictures forever. At some point action, or at least debate, is demanded. In the future when I see people arguing over abortion, the war in Iraq, or tax cuts, I will get involved. Not to persuade them, but to persuade myself that my opinion matters.
Jessica E. Schumer ’06, who was a Crimson photography chair in 2004 and 2005, is a social studies concentrator in Mather House.