More Than Quiescence

THE ESTABLISHED news media and much of their audience think they have the college students of 1982 all figured out. Obsessed with the future, and particularly career choices; increasingly apolitical; hung-up and generally dull--that's the portrait presented by The New York Times campus updates. At their most extreme, the makers of conventional wisdom insist that a wave of outright conservatism has washed over traditionally left-leaning East Coast schools, drowning the activists and the liberal skeptics under a sea of business school applications.

If for argument's sake we limit this discussion to Harvard, it's clear that these generalizations have some basis in fact. But they are also the result of adults--and particularly mainstream journalists--scrounging for definite, sweeping trends where there is actually a complex mixture of conflicting opinions and actions.

Faced with intense competition for traditionally prestigious jobs and an overall economy mired in recession and high interest rates, students are stepping cautiously, weighing the advantages of expensive graduate schools against those of immediate employment and balancing all of that against less-selfish concerns about political issues. Being matter-of-fact about choosing a path beyond the gates of the Yard should not prompt scorn or surprise. "You can't blame someone for wanting to get into a good professional school, to get into a good firm," says Michael T. Anderson '83, a prominent leftist campus organizer. (Please see adjacent interview.) On the other hand, people here have not spent all of their time in the career counseling office. Note the following recent protests.

* Hundreds of angry but eloquent students participated in a campaign last month to reverse the University's drift away from a ban on investments making loans to the government of South Africa. Harvard listened and reaffirmed its original stand.

* Three student members of the University's 12 person advisory panel on corporate investments have indicated they may press the group to begin making specific divestiture recommendations, putting even more pressure on the Corporation to sever its links with the apartheid regime.


* The Harvard-area nuclear disarmament movement, now spearheaded on campus by a broad coalition called Students for Social Responsibility, has held teach-ins and protests attended by thousands this school year. These activists are part of a growing national force which may eventually force the White House to confront Moscow with an offer the Soviets won't be able to refuse We'll cut back now if you cut back now.

* Hundreds of Harvard students have banded together to challenge the Reagan Administration's cutbacks in tuition support A national student drive has already helped change policy. Congress has taken a firm stand against drastic cuts this year

* In what has so far been a frustrating battle, students here and elsewhere have continued to demonstrate strong opposition to U.S. support for militaristic governments in Centra! America A contingent of about 75 undergraduates joined tens of thousands in Washington last week in an emphatic demonstration against intervention in El Salvador.

UNDERGRADUATES, it seems, have not completely forgotten about politics, and they have not lost their fundamentally liberal, reformist skepticism. Simplistic comparisons to the radicalism that developed in the Sixties and exploded at places like Harvard often fail to address the difference in circumstances. Unmitigated Southern racism sparked the New Left in 1960, and the massive American involvement in Indochina pushed the non-violent protest movement toward self-destructive revolutionary tactics in 1967-1968. The causes today--such as apartheid or covert intervention--are not nearly so clear-cut. And yet the students have acted and will probably step up their resistance if issues of concern become more vividly threatening. Says Anderson: "I think that when the Left makes its resurgence, it will be in response to a number of specific events: the reinstatement of the draft, escalated American involvement in Central America, or a specific freakish issue popping up, like student loans."

There is no apparent unifying organization on the Left comparable to the Students for a Democratic Society, which coordinated the efforts of more than 100,000 students at its peak in the late Sixties. Whether one will emerge and survive in this decade is largely a matter of chance and personalities--will the right leaders be in the right places if Reagan blunders into war, for instance. In the meantime, more people probably know more about danger spots like El Salvador in 1982 than they did in 1962, when few could even place Vietnam on the map.

WHAT, THEN, of the other tenet in the new common wisdom--that young conservatives have carved out and pocketed a sizeable chunk of the campus political scene? At Harvard, there has been considerable action on the Right:

* Conservative Club members have recently sponsored a series of demonstrations opposing proposals for a freeze on the nuclear arms race and chastising current communist regimes in Cuba, Vietnam, and elsewhere.

* The same students have produced The Salient, a right-wing newspaper that twice monthly, combining extensive editorials and selective news coverage with snide cracks about Tip O'Neill's waistline and anything even resembling federal regulation.

* Finally, they have legitimately provoked some debate on campus merely by their willingness to respond publicly to important local events.

So there are dedicated conservatives at Harvard--about 25 who regularly attend the Conservative Club's meetings, says President Christopher S. Forman '83, and another 30 to 50 who participate occasionally. (Anderson and fellow leftist organizer Jamin B. Raskin '83 estimate that there is a corps of 50 regular activists attached to the Committee on Central America, the Southern Africa Solidarity Committee and other groups.) Forman and his colleagues say that other less-motivated Reagan fans are at least willing to "come out of the closet" these days. "I'm used to being called a 'fascist,'" says Conservative Club member Ted Higgins '83. "A lot of people don't like being called 'fascists'; two and three years ago they wouldn't have come out and admitted that they were conservatives."

Higgins, who heads the Massachusetts College Republican Union, says that in the outside world the trend is even more pronounced: "Statewide it's been an explosion. Between the spring of 1980 and today, we've gone from six clubs with maybe 200 or 300 members to about 30 clubs right now and 3000 members." Conceding that they are still a very tiny minority at Harvard, the conservatives nonetheless endorse heartily the pop analysts who speak of them with awe. "It's amazing how many people we convince when we speak to them," says Salient Managing Editor Mark A. Sauter '82.

BUT TWO SALIENT observations must qualify any assessment of the Right's success here First, most of the initial media interest in the phenomenon last fall focused on the appearance of two publications: the Dartmouth Review. Hanover's irresponsible, gay-baiting rag, and later, Sauter's Salient. At Harvard, whatever discussion there has been on the conservative issue has also revolved around the newspaper Regardless of its extreme stands, it's impressive that they cared enough to get the thing off the ground, people say as they scan The Salient over lunch. Impressive, yes, but the impetus came from the outside--from a Washington-based right-wing funding organization called the Institute for Educational Affairs--in the form of an $8000 grant. Sauter and Co. have taken full advantage of the opportunity, but if you gave the committed Left leaders an $8000 grant, it wouldn't be surprising if an equally provocative 12-page periodical emerged.

Second, the conservatives themselves concede that adults have confused two trends: the emergence of some serious dissent among generally liberal student bodies on the East Coast and what Higgins calls "this rising, this nauseating preppydom." Disavowing all connections to the legions of Lacoste, Higgins says with a sneer. "Those people aren't conservatives; those people are drunks."

The preps have already received far more attention than they deserve, but one point many have overlooked is that along with wearing chinos and swizzling gin and tonics, it's now "in" among the jet-setters to chuckle and call yourself "conservative It's sort of exclusive sounding, and most public school kids aren't doing it. And with Reagan's benign cowboy humor helping people to forget Nixon and Cambodia and Watergate, the label "Republican" no longer provokes so many raised eyebrows at dorm parties. It's pretty much as Higgins says: a lot of people coming out of the closet and mindlessly calling themselves something their parents have wanted to be for a long time.

No one's drowning under a tidal wave of sentiment of any sort on this Ivy League campus, folks. Generally, we're still the same set of over-achievers trying to map out productive lives and wondering how to mix into that some liberal politics without taking too much away from our private dreams. We're lucky, and most of us realize it. And a few are struggling with our consciences over how to fulfill our responsibility to do something that will benefit society at large.

Recommended Articles