|Complaints about Lexington abound. “Only in [a] place like this would you go to the Nagasaki Inn and order a burger,” laments UK senior Brett Strassner. Criticism of Lexington range from city council to coffee houses, but active pursuit of change is sparse.
Lexington hosts the state’s largest university, University of Kentucky, with 24,000 students and ‘the first college west of the Alleghenies,’ Transylvania University. It is also surrounded by a host of smaller colleges such as Georgetown, Midway, and Centre. And where there are students, it usually follows that there is activism, a counterculture, grass roots movements-occasionally even a revolution.
If victory over Duke in basketball can get hundreds of UK students into the streets and throwing their clothes on phone wires, one might suspect that such enthusiasm would carry over into more significant activities such as community service and volunteer work. Instead, the silence of UK campus on social and political issues is deafening.
“Ithink one of the greater disappointments on [UK] campus has been the failure of environmental issues to galvanize lots of people,” said UK political science professor and long-time community activist Dr. Ernest Yanarella. Last fall before the environmental conference in Kyoto, Japan, students organized a week of films and activities to preface the conference, and “the number of students at any of the weeks activities was under 50,” Dr. Yanarella said. “At the same time, you could turn on the TV to CNN and see other campuses…. It seemed to set in sharp relief the difference between UK and other campuses.”
Two and a half years ago, the now-defunct Students for Social Justice had twenty people at its weekly meetings. Despite the enthusiasm of members during that first year, the group struggled to survive. “I just sense that most students are not interested in activism,” said Moya Hallstein, a UK graduate student and co-founder of the campus group. Her group’s attempt to involve students by offering a teach-in at the Student Center exemplified students’ apathy. “I was amazed at the lack of turnout. There were more people watching soap operas in the room next door.”
Of course when it comes to enlightened self-interest, UK students have stepped up to the plate at least once this year. Last semester, when the state announced another proposed statewide tuition hike, students organized two on-campus protests and a trip to Frankfort. “It got the eyes of a lot of people who didn’t necessarily care,” Cruz said of the rallies which had 100 people each. “It got a lot of attention.” Of the state-funded schools, UK was the only campus to protest the increase.
But what about homeless shelters, orphaned children and other issues that may not affect students’ lives directly? “Unless an issue really affects someone’s life personally,” Hallstein said, “they’re not as likely to make the commitment to working for a change….It’s really hard if there’s not a galvanizing issue.”
UK students today seem to have a short attention span for activism. From the students’ perspective, the campus isn’t especially supportive of, or conducive to grass roots efforts. “A lot of students come in excited,” said senior Emily Gallagher, co-founder of the campus environmental awareness group Green Thumb. “They want to get a lot done, and it’s hard to get a lot done on UK campus.”
Small club activities are uniquely difficult at UK for a number of reasons. “Specialty organizations (those without faculty support) have difficulties only using the free speech space,” and are restricted from reserving a room in the student center for meetings, Hallstein said. Strict restrictions also apply to where groups can hang posters advertising meetings and events.
Unlike university campuses such as politically-charged Kent State, event promotion is haphazard and sometimes inaccessible for students. “There isn’t one place on campus that students can look and say, ‘OK, this is what’s going on this week,'” Cruz added.
While UK does offer a plethora of student groups, they lack “the kind of multi-faceted student organization that looks at broader community issues…. As a result, their impacts really don’t get networked or coordinated as I think was the case in the 1960s,” Dr. Yanarella said.
| “There are just fewer and fewer opportunities where this generation can get involved in real political discussion,” he added. “One of the things that was an identifying factor of the 60’s was that politics and culture were intertwined. [But today] more and more students… have essentially dropped out of the political scene.”
Disenchanted with government’s power to affect change, students appear to have abandoned the process of protest. “So many students on campus have lived in an era of weak or failed political leadership,” Dr. Yanarella explained. “I think that the people largely feel that government action doesn’t work, [but] that doesn’t mean that grassroots… can’t deliver what the government cannot.”
Instead of taking control themselves, students “put the pressure on people running for office,” said Cruz, who has studied Kentucky politics. “We let the elite lead…let somebody else do the job.”
In addition, academic studies, athletics, arts and social activities seem to draw students away. “There’s so much distraction, so much entertainment,” Hallstein said. “I think a lot of it really comes down to time. Most people are not willing to put down what they’re doing to fight to make this a better planet…. The priority for people has to be their schoolwork.”
Students are also overloaded with information from TV and the World Wide Web. “Another factor [in students’ inactivity] is the kind of information glut we have now,” Dr. Yanarella said. “The problem, of course, is that information is hardly ever put into a broader context. Instead, what we have are talking heads…. All they do is provide more heat than light.”
Without faith in the government and in the midst of entertaining distractions, students seem to have become isolated from politics and activism. “There are very few venues … that trigger serious reflection about our culture,” Dr. Yanarella said. “If we look around today, we find a considerable sense of student apathy…. The most dismaying thing is the political cynicism that we see so pervasive on campus.”
Cruz agrees that students today seem more apathetic. “I think [students] let things slide a little easier than the past…. Even our political organizations aren’t that active on campus this year.” She also admits that “most of us aren’t educated about what the real issues are,” even in a year when political scandals (and agendas) seem to have eclipsed major news.
Issues of racial equality, social responsibility and governmental influence are still here and demand our attention, Dr. Yanarella said. “Racism in this country still is a major problem…. Environmental issues certainly have not gone away,” he said. “Many of the issues of the 60s are very much alive, but in the absence of political hope, so many of the students on campus have withdrawn, turned inward.”