My first response was to smack my head. My first response was very, very wrong.
My second response was a sense of pride and excitement surrounding the class of 2004.
Last Wednesday, the Students for Social Justice (SSJ) held their second meeting of the year. While discussing project proposals for the group (a new group focused on promoting activism of all kinds on campus), one participant mentioned sweatshops.
Immediately, a first-year student raised his hand and asked what a sweatshop was. He was in a meeting for activists, but he did not know what a sweatshop was. Somebody patiently explained a very simplistic definition of a sweatshop to him and we continued the meeting (sweatshop, n. A shop or factory in which employees work long hours at low wages under poor conditions).
After my initial shock at the naivete of this question, I looked around the room. Of the 26 students there, at least 13 were first-years. Many other first-years asked questions about what the Libertarian Party’s views were, or who Ralph Nader was and why he was running for president. I was overwhelmed by the number of first-years unaware of some basic facts of activism and politics.
I also was suddenly pleased with the situation. I am still frustrated by the lack of upperclassmen at the meeting and embarrassed by our overwhelming apathy and political passivity. On the other hand, if last Wednesday’s meeting was any indication (and I pray that it was), the class of 2004 – with the help of some vibrant upperclassmen – could finally snap us out of our apolitical funk.
As a campus, we have seen a great number of attempts to quell apathy and spark interest. Purple Bubble has gotten The New York Times delivered to campus twice, “Whose Responsibility Is It?” tried to force many issues, and now students have created SSJ.
Most of this activity has gone for naught – “Whose Responsibility Is It?” got caught in controversy that may have surpassed its message, while the New York Times is an important, but passive, educational opportunity for students.
Not to be outdone, upperclassmen proved their merit last Thursday when the talk on race and education was so overcrowded that it was moved to Bronfman auditorium, which could barely handle the capacity crowd.
This is not to say that all Williams students are suddenly energized. Only about 200 students came to the talk, and roughly 30 stayed for the more intimate (and arguably much more important) discussion afterwards at the Multicultural Center. Hopefully, at next talks in the series on race and education the large crowd will carry over to the discussion as well.
A comment by a first-year a couple weeks ago at a meeting is much more disturbing a sign of the progress we must make as a community. While introducing herself, one first-year noted that she had “already felt injustice on campus,” and that was why she was at the meeting. She had been here for less than two weeks.
It’s still the beginning of the year – a tale of two campuses (with all apologies to Charles Dickens), it’s the best of times, and (at least when winter weather comes along) the worst of times. We face a critical battle against complacency and apathy that has been long-fought and never won. With this introduction to the new school year, I am confident that the final victory is within sight. I hope that we can stay this hard, exhausting, and often demoralizing course. After these meetings, I know we can, but will we?