When Apathy Is Pathetic

A Cynic's View

A FEW DOZEN students risked their academic careers and set up structures in Harvard Yard to protest certain of the University's investment policies. A few dozen students took time to circulate a petition for a women's studies department.

Meanwhile, the mass of us lived our lives unperturbed by our powerlessness at the University, by the fact that the rules that determine how we live, study, eat and sleep for the better part of four years are handed down from on high.

Why don't we care? Why don't we do something about this abominable state of affairs?

The traditional response is student apathy. These are the quietist '80s: and these specimens, ladies and gentlemen, are today's college students, so obsessed with their career prospects that they won't lift a finger for the ideals they probably no longer even cherish.

This insulting pop analysis--repeated in homes and news magazines around the country--ignores the very real economic pressures which American youth face as a result of the still-felt recession of several years ago. This analysis also, and almost incidentally, places the blame for inaction squarely on undergraduate shoulders.

UNDERGRADUATES, I protest, are not entirely to blame. We face too many pressures, too many requirements on our time and energy, too many uncertainties about our future, and too little time. These are the best years of our life. Why should we waste time worrying about things we'll never be able to change anyway?

Apathy is a normal state for college students, and we are only rarely kicked into action, usually by the efforts of a small number of undergraduates in conjunction with activist grad students.

This final element is, I think, the crucial one: graduate student activism.

Grad students face pressures themselves, not the least of which is their imminent graduation into an always hostile and sometimes tight job market. They are also at the direct mercy of their faculty advisors for teaching fellow positions and professional contacts, as well as for thesis-related support.

Nevertheless, their long stint at the University and their relative lack of classroom pressure make them ideal for activism. Indeed, grad students have historically played a catalyzing role in student attempts to make their voice heard in the making of policy.

But these days, at Harvard at least, the graduate students are largely quietist. A few Law School students have marched on the president's office and rallied, but these events are self-contained, and not, apparently, intended to mobilize undergraduates. The college students who come rushing through Harvard, glad at first to be here and glad at the end to be leaving, are in effect leaderless.

THE IMAGE I'd like to suggest is of an undergraduate student body that is not apathetic but pathetic. We undergraduates are unable to organize ourselves in large numbers, to press for a say in the running of a University that is as much ours as anyone else's. We need the help of the graduate students--usually older, debatably wiser, but certainly more experienced.

Perhaps this help is slowly forthcoming. A pamphlet released in draft form last month by a low-profile graduate-student group called Students for Empowerment seems to indicate that at least a few people out there are upset enough to write out a thoughtful, six-page indictment of the Committee on Rights and Responsibilities.

"The outcome of this disenfranchisement [from decision-making] is that the student body is led to confront the Administration outside of the existing ineffectual channels in direct actions," the group wrote.

One can only hope that graduate students are realizing and assuming their burden of leadership. And one can only hope that "direct actions" are being planned as we speak.