The buzzword to describe students of the 21st century has been “apathetic.”
The word, serving as a reaction to the alleged lack of political and social activity among young adults, is loaded with comparisons: how the era of unbridled political activism in the 1960s is long gone, and how students today have shied away from investing their interests in notable causes.
Students at the College face a similar allegation.
While the campus has common political structures from political party groups to politics fora, many hold fast to the perception that the student body is uninvolved in the political process.
“Many of TCNJ’s students are politically apathetic … As citizens, we are very removed from any direct participation in the national political scene,” sophomore political science major Brendan Neal said.
The conception is not misplaced. College students statistically tend to be “the least politically active citizens,” according to political science professor Brian Potter.
Many lack the time or resources to engage in the political process, let alone deeply understand any relevant national issues.
“(Students) are torn in different directions politically and have different impulses. It’s hard to motivate the populace in general,” Potter said.
Hypothetically, campus organizations are supposed to mobilize students for particular causes.
The College has many, including the College Democrats, College Republicans and Amnesty International.
But even these groups have stepped back from the public eye, becoming less active in spite of increasingly heated national debates.
“Political clubs vary in activity year to year, depending on how effective the new leadership is and how active the members want to be. For some reason, it’s been quiet — I wish the Republicans and Democrats were more effective this year,” Potter said.
When asked about their involvement and how they motivate students to participate, all three clubs could not be reached. So, student apathy appears visually prevalent. But taking an accurate measure of that observation is difficult.
The term can be inflated by students who feel disillusioned by their peers or political movements in general. Moreover, a variety of variables exist, influencing student involvement or a lack thereof.
Framing a particular facet of political activity can shed some light on the reality, though — in this case, consider voting.
Students vote when they find an incentive to do so. But voting incurs personal costs, both in time and in money, particularly if students are registered at home. As a result, political science professor Daniel Bowen noted that “there’s expected to be low turnout.”
According to campusvoteproject.org, only “24 percent of all eligible young people aged 18-29” took part in the 2010 midterm elections. Even a simple survey on campus produced similar turnouts. Across two microeconomics 101 courses with a wide distribution of genders, ages and majors, only three out of 57 students voted in the New Jersey gubernatorial elections on Tuesday, Nov. 5. The election allowed students to vote on a minimum wage hike, a provision that directly impacts their employment options.
The numbers appear lackluster. But perhaps this should be expected.
“The importance of voting increases as the importance of government increases on your everyday decisions,” Bowen said. “When you graduate from college, when you have a job, start paying taxes and have a family, you start to care about bigger issues in public policy.”
Ultimately, political apathy exists, both qualitatively from student inactivity and quantitatively from basic facts. But it’s also to be expected. If this is the case, then one must consider how to better mobilize students at the College.
Involvement doesn’t just equate bold activistism and protest. Public debate, community work, interning on campaigns and simply being a good citizen are just as essential to the political process, despite often being underrated.
For others, awareness is key.
“Inspiring students to be involved is easy. It’s about showing them that politics isn’t an exclusively national game,” Neal said. “It’s about teaching them that ‘all politics is local,’ and that their vote carries weight on the state and local levels.”
College faculty can also inspire student activity through academics, framing issues and empowering students to influence outcomes in their interest.
“A good political science department can help focus on the role of institutions, structures, demographics and other causal mechanisms that influence the headlines we see,” Bowen said. “We can embrace these concepts and empower students to say, ‘Let’s think deeply about these issues.’”
The solutions vary, but they’ll all need to be employed if students are to become a force capable of combating real-world issues directly. In other words, the apathy of students today becomes their political problems tomorrow.