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 VOL. 23, NO. 23MAY 20, 1998 

From ‘The Los Angeles Times’:

‘Community Activities on Rise Among Students’

‘Volunteerism: Interest in politics has declined. Columbia president says public service may be seen as an alternative.’

 By John Goldman, The Los Angeles Times, May 10, 1998

NEW YORK—Gray skies and wind cold enough to cause shivers failed to dampen the enthusiasm of almost 1,000 students who gathered on Columbia University’s campus on a recent Saturday morning for a unique pep rally. After a short speech by Columbia President George Rupp, who praised their efforts and pledged to work in the crew renovating Harlem brownstones, the student volunteers fanned out to more than 40 projects throughout the city. Their tasks included not only painting and construction, but clearing rubbish from parks, fixing food for homeless shelters, sorting books for a public school’s library, helping people with AIDS, assembling bleach kits for a needle exchange program, and preparing clothing for low-income women going on job interviews. Clearly, the celebration of community service—meticulously organized by students—was both a tribute to idealism and conscience. It united the campus in helping Columbia’s neighbors and mirrored volunteer efforts at other colleges across the nation.

  The surge in community activism comes paradoxically at a time when polls show that student interest in politics is sharply declining. A survey of 251,323 college freshmen by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute revealed that only 26.7% of the freshmen said it was important to keep abreast of politics. In 1966, the figure was 57.8%. The percentages reflect broader disdain. A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC Poll showed a steady erosion of confidence over the years, strongly suggesting that political leaders are no longer heroes to the young. “I think it is fair to say there is a disenchantment with national politics,” said Rupp, “a disillusionment with what seems to be achievable through the national political process.” The falling interest in politics, however, does not conflict with student volunteer efforts, Rupp said. “In some ways, that is an alternative to involvement in traditional politics,” he said. “Many of the students involved in voluntary activities are skeptical of how much difference it makes being involved in the broader political process.” It was a few days after the student initiative, and Rupp obviously was pleased with its success as he sat in his office overlooking the campus. Along upper Broadway, students hurried to classes. The chimes from a tall antique grandfather’s clock near a window periodically punctuated his words

  Unlike many colleges, Columbia University has retained a rigorous undergraduate core curriculum, stressing examination of the values and concepts that have shaped Western civilization and other cultures. “The fact we have stayed the course with a distinctive curriculum that we are unapologetically advocating distinguishes what we offer here from most other places,” Rupp said. At the same time, like some other institutions of higher learning in New York, Columbia has benefited greatly from improved conditions in the city, including plummeting crime rates. Applications have risen to record levels. In their essays seeking admission, many high school seniors not only cite the core curriculum, but their desire to experience life in New York. It turned out that Columbia’s president—who once was employed by a home-building company—didn’t get a chance to use his carpentry skills during the day of community service. Instead, students wanted to do the woodwork and Rupp ended up doing manual labor—“cleaning out the layers and layers of junk in the backyard and schlepping it out of the building to a dumpster in front.” A 1964 graduate of Princeton University, Rupp recalled his own political commitment during his student years. “I was very heavily involved in both the civil rights movement, and from the mid-’60s on, in anti-Vietnam,” he said. “I think it is fair to say that national politics did seem a vehicle for national change. “Many of us were excited about involvement in national politics even if it was in an antagonistic form.... I see less of that now among our students. “I think this is part of a very large cultural change,” Columbia’s president added. “I would characterize the cultural change as the collapse in the confidence of secular liberalism to solve our problems. “In the early ‘60s, if there were social problems, there was enough intelligence and enough will and enough idealism to throw into the fray and address these problems and even solve some of them,” he said. “I think there has been a collapse in that kind of confidence, and it is partly because the larger values, that are more than just individual enrichment, have stopped carrying as much [emphasis] as they did. “I think the people who solve political problems don’t engender the kind of widespread popular emotional support that can be harnessed by claims to be on a crusade—whether it be getting to the moon or the New Frontier or the Great Society,” Rupp said.

  The lack of student interest in politics also is fueled, Columbia’s president believes, by anger over the high cost of running for office and the fact many young people view politicians with cynicism for currying favor with special interests. The result is that politics can seem pointless to many students who nonetheless retain their generational idealism. To a degree, participation in community service projects can serve as a pathway to political engagement, Rupp said. “It does in a very concrete way focus on individual lives and local problems,” he said. “The satisfaction of making a difference on the local level can lead to broader aspirations.” Columbia’s president said student disenchantment with politics comes at a time when the United States is enjoying a mood of triumph. Predictions that the Japanese economy would swamp the United States have proved to be false. The worldwide influence of American media and entertainment is clear, amid other successes. “It really is easy for Americans to get triumphalist,” Rupp said, noting that criticism can become stifled in a time of national self-congratulations. “One of the virtues of the university is to take the longer historical view ... and the comparative view so we can really see the ways in which American society is deficient against other alternatives—not just the short term ways it is successful,” he said. “As community activism has offered students a pathway to participation in a time of triumphalism, universities have to contribute awareness of other periods of time and other cultural traditions and critical appraisal. “Traditionally, universities have provided a comparative and critical appraisal of where our society is headed, not just a celebration of our achievements,” Rupp added. “Comparative and critical appraisal is a sounder base for public policies than just celebrating our successes.”