The Blog

Explaining 'Student Apathy' to an Adult

Call us apathetic, but rest assured we know why. For all the statistics and polemic you can try and whip out, I, for one, happen to think the student version of politics might be a slightly better state of affairs for everyone. But then again, what do I care?

On the back of a mainstream rhetoric of apathy, naivety and straight-up ignorance it can be tough at times to be a student. On bad days it can feel like the whole world has conspired against you to whip out voting statistics and sound bites that say "you don't care", "you're useless", while on good days it's not your fault but society's.

If we were as shallow and pathetic as everyone seems to want to believe, these sorts of accusations might cause some real harm. Fortunately I think most of us are big enough to deal with a bit of inaccurate press. But it does seem like a strange one to me, considering for a moment students have traditionally been regarded as one of the biggest threats to the establishment.

Don't believe me? Cast your eyes back for a moment to 1942 when the White Rose's resistance to a Nazi Germany was considered so dangerous six of their student leaders were executed. Or take a glance at Hong Kong where something troublingly similar can be seen in the arrests of several student orchestrators of the umbrella protest.

At home, activity, not apathy, was the message being sent by the thousands of the students I joined as part of the student fees occupations. So too was it the message when a group of Oxford students coordinated a successful petition to halt an abortion debate (between two men) in the grounds of one of their colleges.

So what is this all about? Where does the rhetoric of student apathy come from? It seems obvious to me: Because we are a threat.

Historically, as now, the student's defining qualities mark her out as a troubling adversary. Note 1: Enthusiasm. The student's critical faculties, in the early stages of opening, observe a system for the first time and take note of necessary improvements. The world is questioned, absolutes are scrutinised, conventions deconstructed. The student is interested.

Note 2: The student is positive. The belief that we the people - as individuals as well as a collective - can make a difference, imparts an activeness onto the student that is one of her most effective weapons. The student is blessed with a positivism that the world can be changed and that change will come from people.

Note 3: The student activist's greatest weapon, however, is that they are normal. Students protest, that's what they do; students rally, that's standard behaviour; students petition, that's part-and-parcel. Unlike almost any other social demographic, the student isn't stepping out of their comfort zone by criticising the establishment, they're not behaving out of character by organising opposition, in fact they're doing exactly what their peers, themselves and society expect of them.

So apathy? I think not. In fact, I think it is the exact opposite, and I think that is why it is derided.

Biased as I am, the reasons outlined above say more to me about a problem with everyone else than they do with students. If students are characterised by positivism, enthusiasm and anonymity, what is the deal with the rest of society?

And herein lies the real issue. What is everyone else doing? Apart from crossing a box on a ballot paper once every four years, the answer seems to be very little.

Real political engagement is getting on the front-line. It's getting angry and picketing and petitioning and protesting and boycotting and refusing to budge. It's standing up for someone that has been wronged, not waiting until it's you. It's allies and activists and a conviction for real, actual change not a morose 'oh well'.

Now apart from the occasional Joanna Lumley, students are the only people doing this. Because despite our society's self-professed liberalism, when was the last time you saw a middle-aged man on a solidarity slut-walk, or a middle-aged straight woman at gay pride?

Yet across the country, students are doing exactly that. LGBT+ nights and pride events like Oxford's Queer Fest are increasingly some of the most sought after tickets for students of all identifications. Feminist campaigns and projects like the facebook page Cuntry Living continue to engage a huge audience of male allies; while student directives are continuously coordinating intersectional groups to champion causes not directly pertinent to themselves.

Look at the living wage and 0-hour contract campaigns being orchestrated by undergraduates at Cambridge, a cohort that might expect starting salaries of £29,000. Or consider the motion just passed by Bristol Student Union to lobby for all University departments to have gender-neutral toilets. Even just look at the popularity of student branches of Amnesty International, political parties and development initiatives, all of which have traditionally been some of the most popular societies on campuses.

Of course, we all know what this means: students have far too much time on their hands, that's what. Clearly we're not working hard enough if we've got enough time to get involved with so many real-world issues. (Even if these are through the turns of 'clicktivism', 'slacktivism' or some other term dreamt up to denigrate the utilisation of technology to actively engage in the world). I clearly have too much time if I'm able to write this.

Well what if rather than us have too much time, it is they who lack enough? If the rest of society dedicated as much time and energy to fighting for a better world as the student population, imagine what that world could look like.

And that is why students are the threat. Because those hours spent trawling through the comment sections on blogs or websites allow them to constantly revise their world-view. Because those late nights spent chatting over a bottle of wine showed them the potential in humanity. Because those 2am conversations with the homeless guy outside McDonalds made them question the injustice and suffering in the world.

Because we haven't crushed their spirit yet. Because they haven't been tethered to a 9-5; to meeting a quota or getting a promotion, or beating Jeff, who you see everyday in the office but doesn't give a shit about you. Because we haven't addled them with immediate worries - 'one down, ten to go' - an endless sense of inadequacy punctuated only by a weekend reserved for relaxing, sleeping, and forgetting the world for a while.

So call us apathetic, but rest assured we know why. For all the statistics and polemic you can try and whip out, I, for one, happen to think the student version of politics might be a slightly better state of affairs for everyone. But then again, what do I care?