Changing the World

Are college students less idealistic than they were in the Sixties? Are college students less idealistic than they were in the Sixties? At a recent dinner party, a retired college professor who had no Cornell connection vociferously argued: The current generation of undergraduates are apathetic narcissists who think only about themselves and not about the […]

Are college students less idealistic than they were in the Sixties?

Are college students less idealistic than they were in the Sixties?

At a recent dinner party, a retired college professor who had no Cornell connection vociferously argued:

The current generation of undergraduates are apathetic narcissists who think only about themselves and not about the world and their relationship to it.

With nostalgic regret, he recalled the halcyon days of the late Sixties when he and his fellow idealistic students participated in peace marches and dreamed of a revolution that would change not only American foreign policy and the staid university but the capitalist system itself.

Jordan Wells 

Thinking of my students, I strongly took issue with him. It is just too simplistic to contend that in 1968-70—my first years teaching at Cornell—we had an activist student "reformation" and that in recent years we have been having a "counter-reformation" defined by self-immersed materialism and ironic detachment from the world beyond self.

What I see today are students who wish to contribute to their communities but have a practical awareness of what can be accomplished. They are much more conscious of the environment than earlier generations of students, and they are more likely to volunteer in programs aimed at educating prisoners or working with disadvantaged school children, albeit less likely to be involved in protests—in part because we no longer have a draft.

Most of the students I know well are English majors. Many of them have double majors, and quite a few are pre-med or prelaw. Some study economics, often at the behest of parents who are worried that an English major is a passport to poverty. Students today are understandably reluctant to choose academic careers in fields where the job market is tight, but some do. We still have many students who wish to teach or to write the Great American Novel.

Most students are more pragmatic than they were forty years ago. They also seem more grade-oriented. Decisions about courses and summer jobs often depend on what is the best preparation for jobs. But are they cynical careerists? Not in my experience. I find them to be more directed and mature than their predecessors, although perhaps more realistic about what they can contribute to saving the world.

When I first came to Cornell, the students editing the Daily Sun or acting in plays were often not those who were excelling academically; now they are more likely to be the same. If there is one thing that categorizes today's students, it is not the thought that time is money but that time is time—and that time needs to be used as fruitfully as possible, whether for work, extracurricular activities, volunteerism, or social life.

Because today's students communicate electronically, activism tends to be less visible. Internet access is basically private and students debate issues and organize themselves online. According to Kayla Rakowski '08, students learn about the possibility of joining political groups from Internet sources: "We are mavens of communication; we text, call, blog, instant message, Gchat, comment, and e-mail." Kayla, a magna cum laude graduate in English, was an education intern at the Johnson Museum and president of her sorority; she is now working on a master's degree in museum studies at NYU.

Are today's students lacking in idealism? This past year, I wrote recommendations for four graduating seniors to Teach for America, a nonprofit to which students commit for two years to teach in "underresourced"—i.e., low income—urban or rural schools. In 2007-08, almost 25,000 candidates applied for about 3,700 places. While these students are modestly compensated, they are making an enormous commitment to the public good.

Students used to take pride in cutting the umbilical cord when they arrived at Cornell. They are less independent now and often think of their parents as friends as much as authority figures. Several students and parents with whom I have spoken feel that parents are less restrictive, which conforms to my impression. Although some parents believe they are being told everything in a constant stream of e-mails and phone calls, most students only selectively confide in them.

I will close with a comment from Ashley Featherstone '08, a magna cum laude graduate in English and the first member of her family to attend college: "The people I spent the most time with shared many of the same values as me—hard work, determination, integrity, and service. . . . Whether through music, art, literature, business, science, or medicine, Cornell students are idealistic, and they are struggling with issues of war, poverty, race, gender, sexuality, education, and the environment."

— Daniel R. Schwarz

Daniel R. Schwarz is the Frederic Whiton Professor of English Literature and a Stephen Weiss Presidential Fellow.

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