A College Student Attempts To Explain Youth’s Tune-Out

      The generation and the economic class I belong to is perhaps the most informed of all the prior generations. But this isn’t about access to media and wide-eyed “gee, isn’t it neat to e-mail someone halfway across the planet” commentary. We grew up with that stuff and it doesn’t impress us anymore. Instead, this is about how we, the upper- and middle-class citizens between the ages of 17 and 27, choose to deal with all this information.
      I’d like to be able to say we’ve thoughtfully gathered information on issues, chosen sides, and decided who’s closer to God. I wish I could say we’ve written our Congresspersons demanding an end to the guerrilla warfare in Angola and Sierra Leone. I’d like to report that thousands of us have marched on Washington chanting in a unified pointillist painting that political prisoners within our own country be set free. I’d like to say we have made our voices heard on issues of health care, tax cuts and environmentalism, and that we’ve taken the garbage guiltily dumped on our heads by well-meaning predecessors, and transformed it into shining white doves.
      If only....
      I last went to a peaceful rally when I was 14. That was in 1992, and 700,000 people assembled in D.C., spurred to protest when President Bush threatened to overturn Roe v. Wade. The “March for Women’s Lives,” organized by the National Organization for Women (NOW), was a success. The legislation remained intact. We all cheered, went home and rested easy.
      It is no big secret that Roe v. Wade is threatened every year, but the outcry has dissipated, the urgency abated. Our generation should be carrying the ball, but we’re not.
      A recent issue of the Charles Street Standard, a student newsletter from Johns Hopkins University, had three feature articles on grades and the grading curve. The rest of the magazine focused on school life. The only even remotely political article in the magazine was about praying, in what sounded like hopeless resignation, for the people of Yugoslavia:
      “I give up. This world is going to Hell.... Consequently I think action should be taken. If I knew what this course of action was, I probably would have received the Nobel Prize by now. However I’m as lost and confused as everybody else. I do not know how to stop this madness... In times such as these I usually turn to prayer.”
      Have we given up the fight? Has indifference finally won?
      Not exactly. According to the students I spoke with at the Maryland Institute, College of Art, one thing is clear: many students do feel strongly about certain issues. However, they do not feel they have the “right” to talk about those issues. They’re afraid of seeming too pushy or too preachy.
      Andrew Mann, a sophomore from Ohio, said, “We have the beliefs and the morals, we just don’t go out and tell everyone about it.” When I asked him about his own opinions, political or otherwise, he said, “Basically I don’t have any opinions that I think are valid right now.”
      Overwhelmingly, the students I spoke to felt that the greatest dangers lay in getting too active about issues they don’t feel they have a “right” to explore.”
      It takes a humble and generous person to admit he doesn’t know enough about a subject to form an opinion on it. But with our computer-proficient generation, if a subject comes up that we don’t know about, it is absolutely within our power to find out about it, quickly, cheaply, and from a myriad of viewpoints. So how can we say we “don’t know”? The problem is more subtle than that.
      The Downside of Political Correctness: Last semester I was in a debate class that focused on looking at cultures outside our own and figuring out how to interpret those cultures in our own frame of reference. The few voices that broke the steady, minutes-long silences peppered their statements with phrases like “don’t get me wrong,” “if that’s what you’re into, more power to you,” “it’s not my place to judge,” “now, I’m not saying this is necessarily right, it’s just what I believe,” and “I don’t want someone jumping down my throat when I say something they might disagree with.”
      The air was full of the electricity of angry restraint and indifference. No one wanted to be held accountable for their beliefs. Only a few were willing to put trust in their very own words.
      No doubt this is the result of a hypersensitive society that has turned feminism into “feminazi” and a sensitivity to people’s desire for respect into “political correctness.” How did such sane notions get turned into gags?
      A teacher of mine once suggested the great sweep of abstract expressionist art in the sixties was powered by a corporate class in whose best interest it was to have a population ruminating on their inner thoughts and feelings and not on public policies. It sounds paranoid, but there is a degree of truth: self- consciousness and self-centeredness lead to a placid, consumerist society. We figure we deserve “rewards” for emotional and physical stress, justifying a shopping spree by working longer, more productive hours. And this is what colleges are now geared toward: a well-paying job for every student.
      Fiscal Priorities Leave Little Time for Activism: Every single person I spoke to had the same response to the question: What is your greatest priority right now?
      Yen Wen Chau, a graduate student from Taiwan, Alanso Tamayo a senior from D.C, Grace Lee, a junior from Korea, Fillip Sablik, a senior from Virginia, and others all said, more or less: “Finding work and generally trying to secure a future” is their number one concern.
      Every generation has its defining characteristics. Ours is about obtaining a vast wealth of information and then paying for it. Computers, Internet access, transportation, and most exorbitant of all, the price of state and private college tuition--lifetime savings dried up in a four-year blitzkrieg of learning, topped off with crippling student loans.
      Students are expected to work their way through college, no matter how privileged or underprivileged they are. It’s impossible for me to visualize going to school without having a job to pay for supplies, food, and entertainment. Most students are too drained at the end of a twenty-hour day to think long and hard about the suffering of their fellow human beings.
      This preoccupation with supporting ourselves seems to be the new abstract expressionism. In the eighties and early nineties, we had self-help books and Jane Fonda to keep the population focused on personal well-being. Now there is the preoccupation of finding an occupation to pay for our high-maintenance living standards.
      A therapist friend of mine used to stress over and over that people will always find an outlet for rebellious and angry feelings. Usually it’s through sports, childhood fist-fights, writing, art, etc.. If outlets are not provided, people in this society have a tendency to “snap”--emotionally or physically.
      I do not have any science or research to back up my theory, but it is striking to see the rise in extreme violence in youths of the middle class, noting that conflicts are dealt with by everyone taking a deep breath and relaxing before any real issue is addressed. But what has this gotten us? A bunch of people who are terrified of overstepping their verbal boundaries. I can’t help thinking maybe it’s better to go with some gut feelings first: fist-fights instead of gun fights.
      I have found three true things in this world: only personal suffering and fear will stir people to action; the “right people” must be at the negotiating table; and information in an isolationist, pop-culture society is as useless as a blender in a lecture hall. The “right people,” in this case, are the well-informed and well-heeled. Fortunately, these people--namely, myself and my classmates--have hardly suffered a day in our lives (dysfunctional family life aside). But we are not unaffected by the events occurring across the globe. I know this because I know of classmates who cry when news of mass rapes and murders come floating across the T.V. screen. I know we do care, because there are those who pray, and those who eventually shut their ears to the terror.
      These happenings must be affecting us deeply if we are so afraid to even discuss “current events.” If we continue letting ourselves be quieted by a fear of sounding dumb or offending each other, we will remain a society of people who want always to weep in agony every time we turn on the evening news.

This fall, Jess Levy will be a senior at Maryland Institute, College of Art. She is an intern with this newspaper.

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This story was published on September 1, 1999.