Generation at the Crossroads: Apathy and Action on the American Campus

Paul Rogat Loeb
New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1994
458 pp., $24.95

Christie Nye

I am a member of Generation X. We've been called a bunch of lazy, irresponsible, MTV-watching Beavis and Buttheads. We're told that we thrive on soap operas and talk shows, that we're having illegitimate children and letting our parents raise them, that we have no respect for elders, that we express our politics on "legalize reefer" and "free O.J.!" t-shirts, that we think Howard Stern is cooler than Mother Theresa, and that we are "pathologically selfish, greedy and apathetic, selfindulgent, isolated and ignorant" (2). These are just a few of the warm and friendly things said about me and my Xer Gens. Although Paul Loeb, in Generation at the Crossroads, doesn't want to come down so hard on us, he essentially endorses these indictments but sugar-coats them for easier consumption.

Loeb interviewed students from campuses across the nation to better understand their political views, or lack of them. He found that the majority of students "had come of age under the sway of political, cultural, and economic currents that convinced citizens in general to seek personal well-being over a common social good" (3). As far as he is concerned, the majority of Generation X students are woefully "apolitical."

The remaining students fall into two categories: "prepolitical" and politically "committed." Throughout Generation at the Crossroads, Loeb reveals his bias towards politically committed students. Although Loeb's book has many merits--indepth interviews, genuine concern for Generation X and commitment to a better society--it is not as insightful, fair-minded or politically balanced as I would have hoped.

In Book I, Loeb delves into the dorm rooms and thoughts of apolitical students who feel "I'm not that kind of person" (the subtitle of Book I). He interviews students who represent that portion of Xers who are greedy and unconcerned about world affairs and local events. These politically withdrawn students attend college to make big bucks, drive BMW's, and vacation on yachts in the Bahamas. They're too busy striving for financial success to worry about things like world peace.

Other apolitical students don't get involved because they have to work full or part-time to pay for college tuition. "America's economic crunch makes it hard for students to take responsibility for more than just personal survival" (44) Juggling work, class, and study schedules leaves little time for picketing. These time-strapped apolitical students share some of the goals of their politically active counterparts, but are unwilling to sacrifice their potential personal and financial successes to achieve them.

Another reason for their apathy, Loeb finds, is that "global events seem out of their control," so why even try to improve the world around them? Loeb would consider me part of this apathetic, apolitical group of students. According to Loeb, if I choose to spend my free time writing poetry rather than marching to end world hunger, I just don't care. But what if I recycle the paper I'm using? Loeb doesn't consider such small-scale activism a sign of real social concern. He limits his focus to large-scale activism.

Those one step up from apolitical are the "pre-political." His definition of "pre-political" includes students working in service movements. These students are said to be "prepolitical" because Loeb doesn't regard service activities, such as working in local shelters or soup kitchens, as activistic enough to alter society.

Yet, maybe these students believe that little contributions are key to changing the world. Unlike the activists, who try to do everything, prepolitical students do what they can, which is better than doing nothing at all. Unfortunately, Loeb emphasizes the activities of the student activists to discredit the efforts of the merely "prepolitical."

Book II focuses on "activists" who attempt to create a better society. These students spend their free time pursuing their political causes through organizations like United States Students Association, Creeks for Peace, and Student Environmental Action Coalition.

Although Loeb calls these students "activists," I feel they are more appropriately labeled radicals. As Loeb describes them, these students devote every minute of their free time to the cause, whether it is combating tuition hikes or racial injustice. They go beyond marching and rallying; they often sacrifice their educations and health for their political beliefs. Loeb's definition of the politically involved student includes only those wholly dedicated to the cause, not those willing to give some, not all, to the cause. Loeb admires and praises only those students who take over libraries or turn in their non-PC professors in the name of some social ideal.

In Book III, Loeb's agenda becomes quite clear. He encourages the apolitical students to get with it, the prepolitical students to get more with it and the politically active students to stay with it. He stresses the need for activism to the apolitical students and beckons those already politically active to encourage others to take stands. He also wants to convince members of his generation that there is hope for molding the apathetic, unconcerned student majority into politically active citizens.

My problem with Loeb is that he has a rigid and severe, as well as biased, definition of political activism and commitment. It excludes students involved on a smaller scale and privileges only those completely and entirely devoted to their cause. Yet, I applause Loeb's even-handedness. He equally represents students of both conservative and liberal bents when praising his "activists."

What about those students who are politically aware, acting out of social concern without radicalism? If adapters want to drink beer more than rally against war--and they also throw their empty cans into recyclable bins--they are showing social concern. But this sort of concern doesn't mean much in Loeb's view of involvement. He's trying to give an "all for one and one for all" feeling to a generation reared on "every man for himself," but he offers no support to those doing what they can without sacrificing their lives for it.

Even students whom Loeb would categorize as apolitical display political awareness. Some assert their convictions with bumper stickers that say "pro-Life," "get US out of the United Nations," or "give a hoot, don't pollute." But to Loeb these sentiments count only when displayed on picket signs marched onto the steps of the Capitol building, not when driven around town.

Perhaps those students, like me, who remain politically silent have learned from the past that many acts of radicalism don't work, as Loeb's own example of the CUNY strikes demonstrates. Perhaps students in Generation X save their political voices until they have more leverage to do some good. In contrast to Loeb's views, I feel that students should be students first and primarily, because a college degree (or a job) will give credence to their cause, whatever it turns out to be.

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