The modern American student activism movement began in
the 1930s, when the American Student Union was created. During its peak years,
over 500,000 students were mobilized to stage one-hour strikes against war and
to raise awareness on issues such as federal education aid and collective
In the 1960s, students filled university squares, as
protests in support of racial equality ignited across America while student
commons of Berkeley, Madison, and schools across the country fostered a
Ten years later, students staged sit-ins and fought
against the draft and the Vietnam War. Freedom of speech, freedom of
information, and gender inequality were evaluated because American students
organized and committed to changing them.
Most recently, the Occupy Wall Street protests inspired
thousands across the country to stand against wealth disparity. One of the
biggest differences in modern protests compared to movements of previous
generations is their longevity. In September of 2011, thousands marched in
Manhattan’s financial district. In 2012, only a few hundred did.
Today, it seems the energy and commitment to change,
especially on college campuses, is gone.
Katherine Carson, a University of Wisconsin-Stevens
Point wildlife ecology senior, believes current students are faced with other
issues than previous generations.
“It’s hard being a student, especially with how tuition
keeps rising and everything is getting more expensive while wages aren’t going
up, and so a lot of students are struggling to go to school and pay rent and
eat,” said Carson, president of both the UWSP College Feminists and Students
for a Democratic Society.
Carson also said that the proximity to an issue can
hinder students’ involvement in working for change on issues.
“I think for a lot of students living in Stevens
Point—a lot of issues don’t show themselves here. It’s not right in your face.
You can’t really see people starving here. A lot of these issues just aren’t
visible unless you are actively searching out information,” Carson said. “I
think a lot of people just don’t know.”
Discouragement can also play a factor in a student’s
lack of activity. In February of 2011, thousands protested Wisconsin governor
Scott Walker’s proposed bill to alter collective bargaining rights for public
employees. In Madison, protests continued into the summer but subsided after
the budget legislation was passed.
Defeat and the disillusionment that comes with it were
realized in the capital protestors.
“People see that Walker won everything big that he
asked for, and despite all the great activism, we don’t have anything to show
for it,” said Matthew Rothschild, editor of The Progressive magazine in a June
17, 2011 article.
Carson said that, despite this outcome, political
activism is still important.
“I’m active because the world’s messed up, and I can’t
handle just sitting around and being okay with that. Sitting around being sad
about it doesn’t do anything,” Carson said. “I don’t have these grand illusions
that I’m changing the system, but I’m at least not sitting around and accepting
it because just sitting around and doing nothing and not talking about it is
equivalent to being okay with and supporting the way things are.”
Carson also said that students looking to get involved
on campus should pay attention to the Student Messages of the Day, keep an eye
out for posters from student organizations and engage with people tabling in
the university center.
“If it’s something you don’t agree with, go talk to
those people. College is supposed to introduce you to ideas, and we’re all
supposed to be exchanging ideas and growing our minds. I don’t know if it’s
just this campus, but people won’t really talk to each other. Maybe it’s
intimidating for them. The way that schooling is structured, debate is not
really encouraged,” Carson said. “You might get called out, and your views
might be challenged, but that’s okay. That’s part of the process.”