What ever happened to the heroes?
Student activism was once a force to be reckoned with. It changed the world, visibly and profoundly. It was the catalysts that lead to the end of the Vietnam War, it pressured governments to finally stop supporting apartheid and it forced the world to start addressing institutionalized racism. But today, in the face of genuine and widely felt grievances, students are impotent and apathetic. Universities are businesses, education is job training and a degree is a holiday.
It was "re-fresher's week" and we were sat round on a circle of fold out chairs and boxes drinking warm cider out of mugs. We were taking turns to explain what had brought us here, to University. People were answering honestly and the notion most commonly expressed was that they just wanted to get away from home. It's an impetus previous generations will struggle to understand. With the employment and property markets as they are, going away to Uni was the only realistic way to get away from mum and dad at eighteen, to find some independence, to 'find our selves.' But it's also unavoidably a somewhat perverse reason to go into higher education; selfish, myopic, indulgent even - racking up loans and maxing out overdrafts just to get away from our doting parents?
As the question circulated it came to the turn of a philosophy undergrad that we'd only recently met. "Well," he said, "I came to learn how to live... and how to die, I guess. I want to understand the forces at work in the world so I can change it for the better whilst I'm alive." The room rippled with smirks followed by a hush of confusion. The boy blushed and conversation moved on.
I was too cowardly to defend him that night. My social survival mechanisms learnt in secondary school kicked in and I bit my tongue. But I wish I'd defended him. After all, truly, I had hoped to escape that 'high school cool' at university. I thought, finally, it would be cool to care. After all we were all paying a fortune to study here, why would we scoff at those who are passionate about what they study? Maybe, finally, people wouldn't roll their eyes and sigh with disapproval when someone wanted to discuss whether or not Israel has a right to exist, or if there is a meaning to this life, even. Those hopes were misled, and now I am complicit.
The stark truth is university culture has fundamentally changed in the past decade. The anoraks are out and the 'lads' are in. "Education, education, education!" said Blair. An entire generation raised on American Pie and Skins went skipping off to "unaii" for the "experience" of a life time. Previous generations were rocked by Che Guevara, Nelson Mandela and Gandhi. We lusted for gap years, Jägerbombs and casual sex.
It's an infuriating paradox, but intellectual institutions are now infected by an aggressively anti-intellectual culture. Students are making more headlines for urinating on war memorials and telling rape jokes than for fighting injustice or advancing progressive ideas. Too many went, for all the wrong reasons and universities are fast becoming playgrounds for middle class kids to postpone their adulthood. They are dominated by an ugly 'lad' culture that fuses the elitist arrogance of public school rugby with a distinctively American, extroverted and stupefied 'jock' persona.
The decay isn't only down to students. Student Unions are now anything but 'Unions'. They are failing to protect the interest of students, nurture a hot bed of intellectual activity or help co-ordinate any meaningful student activism. Today, student unions are just shopping malls designed to extract money from the 'student market' and political apathy has made student democracy nothing more than a beautified popularity contest. Our own union has been powerless to stop the ACS (Accommodation and Commercial Services) setting up a subsidiary company of the university that can effectively be run as ruthless, profit hungry corporation. Sheffield's union, apparently the best in the country, now contains overpriced shops, a selection of banking outlets and a fine dining restaurant (seriously) - all installed to exploit us not serve us.
The apathy that's infecting Universities is not occurring in a vacuum. It's part of a wider trend that is characteristic of our entire generation. Politicians have been able to so readily trample on the interest of young people because they know we don't turn out to vote. The prescribed austerity has hardly touch the baby boomers, who reaped the benefits of the post war boom and extravagance of the Thatcher years, simply because they care enough to walk to a ballot box.
People my age will happily sit on their laptops 'liking' and 'sharing' various worthy causes they purport to endorse. But in reality, all they're doing is advertising themselves as philanthropists to their thousands of 'friends', yet failing to make a difference out in the real world. The Internet and social media have been utilized to magnificent effect in the Arab spring and across the developing world. But here in the cozy west they are insincere platforms of vanity and narcissism.
This generation has so many legitimate grievances; underhand privatization of universities is occurring under our noses, inequality has been rising for half a century and the banking elite continues to leach off the blood of the people. But we're not scared by the forces that threaten the peace and equality we've always known, because we can't imagine a world where things are any different. To my generation wars are what happened to our grandparents and human rights violations are things that occur in distant lands. We naively take the stability and security of our liberal democracy for granted and have become the most passive and politically impotent generation in living memory.
The student riots of 2010 represented a glimmer of hope. But essentially they were just a furious outburst of shock and anger at the unprecedented tripling of tuition fees (not too dissimilar to the other recent riots). The anger found no unifying purpose, no explanatory ideology or motivating cause. The businessmen who now run universities responded with vengeful and undemocratic means. They have banned sit ins and many forms of protests and the students who care are too fragmented and few to respond at all.
Maybe when the injustice and inequality becomes too much to bear this generation of students will finally wake up. I just hope we don't leave it so long that the hard won gains of past generations of students are entirely undone.